Repair Revolution: One Man’s Fixation With E-Waste

E-waste debris on ocean rocks

When Kyle Wiens was a computer science undergraduate student at California Polytechnic State University, he needed to fix his Apple laptop, so he looked online for a repair manual. To his chagrin, he couldn’t find one.

“I discovered that Apple was using copyright law to prevent me from accessing the repair manual,” he says. “I got mad, and I decided to do something about it.”

Repair movement seeks to stem tide of e-waste

He wrote a repair manual for his laptop and posted it online. That act turned out to be the foundation of iFixit, the company Wiens founded in 2003 with Cal Poly classmate Luke Soules. IFixit is a wiki-based website that offers free repair manuals for a variety of products—especially electronics. They promote electronics repair and reuse as the highest sustainability goals, countering the trend of planned obsolescence in electronic products.

“It’s the free repair manual for everything,” Wiens says. “It’s our mission to teach everybody how to fix all their things and to build a repair ecosystem around free, open-source repair information.”

From a startup that Wiens and Soules operated from their dorm, iFixit—based in San Luis Obispo, Calif.—now has 50 employees, offers about 16,500 manuals for more than 4,400 devices (and counting), and welcomes roughly 10 million “community members” to the site each month, Wiens says. “They’re contributing, they’re posting questions, they’re helping each other solve problems,” he notes. “IFixit is the outward manifestation of a whole lot of people who are doing the creative, hard work and then documenting it online.”

In a world saturated by increasing e-waste, Wiens is passionate about the need for more repair and reuse, viewing them as the best path to resource conservation, pollution prevention, job creation, individual empowerment, and technological advancement in developing nations. Here, he talks about the promise—and the obstacles—of the growing repair and reuse industry.

E-waste recycling

Women sorting Plastics for melting. Outskirts of Guangzhou, China. Smashed cathode ray tubes ‘stored’ in back of processing shop, Dali, China. Image courtesy of baselactionnetwork.

IFixit says it is “committed to solving the e-waste problem by empowering repair all over the world.” What is the e-waste problem, in your view? The biggest tragedy with electronics is the amount of raw material it takes to manufacture these products. Most of the environmental degradation related to them is on the manufacturing side, not on the end-of-life side. I’ve been to e-waste processing yards in Ghana and Delhi, and they’re an environmental problem, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the problems from mining. Just look at the companies that are mining rare earth metals in northern China—it’s phenomenal how much damage they have caused and are continuing to cause.

They’re digging a hole in the planet every single day to make the cellphones we use for 18 months and then toss away. So the real e-waste tragedy is that we’re not leveraging the material that goes into these devices as much as we could.

It takes 500 pounds of raw material to make an 8-ounce phone. You wouldn’t throw away a 500-pound product when it broke, would you? You’d repair it, and the same should be true for electronics.

Aside from extending the life of electronic products, what other benefits does repair offer? Anytime you have something that’s broken and you repair it, you’re creating economic value. Every broken electronic device is worth some baseline price. If you shred it, maybe you get $1 in commodity value. If you repair it, the value will be more than that, and the question is how much labor it takes to get there. If the labor cost is less than the increase in value, then you win. So from an economic perspective, repair is always about generating economic activity, increasing value, and creating jobs.

From an environmental perspective, when we recycle devices, we always lose trace amounts of materials. In a typical electronic product like a cellphone, recycling can capture 70 to 75 percent of the raw material mass. But a lot of the fine elements—rare earths such as indium and neodymium—that are used in trace amounts in electronic devices are definitely lost in the slag. The most advanced smelters in the world can’t capture all the trace elements in these devices, and, unfortunately, most of the world’s rare earth mining is done in environmentally damaging ways.

We like to think electronics recycling is the highest sustainable industry, but when we’re shredding devices, smelting them down, and losing trace materials that can only be replaced from raw virgin sources, there’s a problem. So iFixit’s mission is to increase each device’s life span and maximize the amount of time its component materials are in use.

How do you motivate the owners of electronic products to repair their devices rather than storing them in a drawer or recycling them? Whenever you have something that’s broken, you have two options: You can throw it away or you can take it apart. If it’s already broken and you take it apart, how much worse is it going to get? If nothing else, you’ll learn something about it; in the best case, you’ll fix it. Most people are motivated to fix things to save money. Microsoft’s Xbox is a great example. It has a common flaw that’s pretty easy to solve. The parts required to repair it are minimal, so you can fix an Xbox for $20 or $30 rather than buying a new one for $300. It’s the same story when you break the glass on a smartphone. For $40 to $50 you can buy new glass, repair the phone, and it’s good as new.

E-waste recyclingIn interviews, you’ve talked about “bridging the digital divide.” What does that mean? I think getting cellphones into the hands of everybody in the world would make the world better. I’d go so far as to say that access to telecommunications—access to the global community—is a fundamental human right. So we want to get cellphones into the hands of 7 billion people, but we can’t afford to manufacture 7 billion new iPhones every year. Currently, U.S. consumers use a cellphone for about 18 months, and then it’s time for an upgrade. But the phone still works—or it could still work with a new battery. If we extend the life span of devices from 18 months to 10 years, we can get those used products from developed countries to the developing world, where people would be excited to have them. That’s how we can bridge the digital divide.

How much and what kind of opposition has your work elicited from electronics manufacturers? I don’t think they like us very much, and I think that’s shortsighted because we’re creating a support ecosystem around their products. Many product manufacturers support their customers by making repair information available, selling service parts [i.e., replacement parts], and encouraging a network of independent repair professionals who can work on their products. In the electronics world, you get the exact opposite. Planned obsolescence is built into these products, and the manufacturers are doing everything they can to stifle customers [who want to repair their products]. I think they’re behaving in a shortsighted, consumer-hostile way that is costing them money in terms of service parts, repair services, and more. So iFixit comes along and provides the services they should have been offering in the first place.

How many times have you been sued? We’ve never been sued. We understand copyright law very well, and, unfortunately, there is a limit to the services iFixit can provide because of constraints in copyright law. We have to start teaching everyone in the recycling industry about copyright law. As the digital unlocking and kill-switch issues have shown in recent years, we’ve gotten ourselves into this paradigm where the electronics manufacturers have all the control, and that’s wrong. The person who owns the product should have the control.

Your website invites people to join your “repair revolution.” How is the revolution going so far? We’ve been at this for over 12 years, and I think it’s clear now that we were on the right track. But we were probably a decade too early. The world wasn’t ready for iFixit when we started, but the amount of interest is really starting to take off.

We’ve been saying all along that the electronics manufacturers are in opposition to everyone else in the world—the recyclers, the repair centers, the consumers. And manufacturers have taken some steps in recent years proving that is concretely true.

Nikon, for instance, has systematically shut down over 3,000 camera shops around the country by refusing to provide parts and tools. Apple is designing products that are clearly designed to be unprofitable to recycle. There’s absolutely no way anyone can profitably recycle iPads, and Apple isn’t being called out for it. IPads are the new CRTs. But I think things are going to come to a head in the next few years.

What positive signs have you seen, if any, that electronics manufacturers are getting iFixit’s message? Fairphone is a cellphone manufacturer that is doing things right. The company is going out of its way to design a phone that’s compelling, that has all the latest features, but also that’s easy to repair and recycle. It includes a repair manual on the phone itself; it designs its phones so the battery can be replaced in seconds. HP also offers some repairable, upgradable, all-in-one computers.

E-waste recyclingAre you optimistic electronics will become more repairable and sustainable in the future? Yes, if we can put enough pressure on the manufacturers. The recycling community is the one holding the smoking gun, such as the products with integrated batteries that are not economically viable to recycle. As commodity prices decline, that changes the value proposition of recycling. Why in the world would I go out and buy used cellphones when I have to spend more on labor removing the batteries from them than they’re worth in commodity value? What we should do is take all of these iPads that aren’t worth anything and dump them on Apple’s doorstep. You made them; take them back.

Talk about iFixit’s arrangement with Electronic Recyclers International (Fresno, Calif.). One of the interesting challenges about repair is access to service parts. We can source some service parts ourselves, but it’s challenging to get service parts for some products. Recyclers have access to those products, so we work with them to salvage original equipment parts. We’re harvesting parts, and we’re the first companies to do it at scale for a large spectrum of devices.

What steps has iFixit taken to expand its role and presence in the European e-recycling market? We’re making our repair manuals available in a number of European languages—Dutch, French, German, Spanish, and Italian—as well as Turkish, Russian, and Portuguese. We’re working very hard to teach everybody in the world how to repair everything.

We also are partnering with Close­WEEE, a European consortium that’s working on a number of advanced recycling technologies. We’re helping to build a centralized resource of disassembly procedures for recyclers—called the Recycler Information Center—and we’re going to request information from electronics manufacturers on behalf of the recyclers and put it on the central database. The project’s overall goal is to improve material recovery, and a big part of that effort is manual disassembly. Any time you do mechanical disassembly, you’re going to have a lower yield than when you do manual disassembly. How do you optimize manual disassembly? It’s one device at a time, which is good for jobs.

So far, the manufacturers have refused to provide recyclers with safe disassembly procedures, and it turns out that is in contravention of European law. Either the manufacturers will comply with European law or they won’t, so this is a grand experiment to see if they will put their money where their mouths are in terms of being green.

E-waste recyclingWhat else is iFixit doing to advance repair and reuse? We continue to partner with recyclers to make additional repair manuals available. Recyclers tell us, “Hey, I wish we could repair these products,” and we say, “Send us one of each of them. We’ll figure out how to fix it, and we’ll document the procedures.” We’re happy to do it. We also have joined forces with other companies to form the Digital Right to Repair Coalition [North Haledon, N.J.], which is working on legislative and other policy remedies that will advance the market opportunities for the independent repair of electronic products.

In general, which electronics manufacturers make the most repair-friendly devices and which are the worst offenders? Every manufacturer has a portfolio of products; sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad. HP, Dell, and Lenovo should get credit. They make repair manuals available on their websites. They’re specifically designing products that are easy to disassemble. Those are the sorts of innovations we need to see. The Apple iPads and iPods are very bad, but the iPhone 6 is pretty good. Samsung’s Galaxy S6 is worse than the Galaxy S5—we were disappointed by that.

If you could ask electronics manufacturers to stop certain practices that hinder repair, what would you request? The primary requests would be to stop using glue or create strategies for mitigating that glue quickly; to publish repair information for the products; to make service parts available to independent providers; and to stop using proprietary screws. We don’t like having to make new screwdrivers. I make a lot of money every time manufacturers release a proprietary screw [by selling a matching screwdriver], but we think it’s silly. They do it to prevent people from getting into their products. One time I replaced the proprietary screws in my iPhone with Phillips-head screws. When I took the phone to the Apple store for service, they wouldn’t work on it until I took out the Phillips-head screws and put back in the proprietary screws.

Can you recall one of the most frustrating moments in your career? The EPEAT situation was pretty ridiculous. EPEAT was supposed to be the standard that confirmed whether a specific electronic product is green, and Apple got a product certified as EPEAT Gold that is not recyclable or repairable. We appealed the process, and Apple’s lawyers found a way to keep the product certified to EPEAT Gold. For me, that process removed one of the best tools for distinguishing green electronics because there’s no other eco-label for these products. There’s no system out there to tell consumers what’s what.

How about one of your most rewarding moments? The messages we receive from individuals about how iFixit helped them. We’re taking people from a place of insecurity to a place of self-confidence. That’s really, really empowering.

What is iFixit’s biggest challenge at the moment? The biggest challenge is the number of products out there. The number of products continues to increase.

We’ve written over 500 repair manuals for Android products, but we’ve identified over 5,000 Android products in the marketplace. The pace of new products coming out continues to increase, and the specialization and repairs are different for each one.

We need to keep our scale ramping up as fast as the manufacturers are ramping up, and that’s a challenge. We’re managing it, but it’s tricky.

What are some of iFixit’s priority plans going forward? We’re interested in building more relationships with recyclers because they have access to electronic products and they know the things that are breaking, so that gives us more intelligence on the problems that are out there. The Recycler Information Center is a major priority, building out that database of disassembly procedures. And finding ways we can bridge the gap between the recycling industry, the repair community, and the manufacturers because all of us have to work together. This cannot continue to be an antagonistic relationship. To build a sustainable electronics industry—which is what all of us are trying to do—all the stakeholders have to be at the table, and they all have to be cooperating. Currently, they are not.

Publisher’s note: This article originally appeared in Scrap magazine’s November/December 2015 issue. Reprinted with permission. Feature image courtesy of Martin Eklund.

Earth911

Earth911

We’re serious about helping our readers, consumers and businesses alike, reduce their waste footprint every day, providing quality information and discovering new ways of being even more sustainable.
Earth911