In an era defined by rapid technological development, the exponential growth of electronic devices creates convenience and unprecedented challenges. As new technologies and gadgets transform our lifestyles, a silent crisis looms on the horizon: electronic waste, or e-waste, is a significant threat to our environment. Making devices easier to repair so that they last longer can help stop a tidal wave of electronic trash.
E-waste not only packs landfills but also releases toxic substances into soil and water, endangering ecosystems and public health, in no small part as a consequence of corporations not designing their products to last. Consumers and small businesses have called for greater autonomy and the ability to affordably repair defective and worn out products, in what has come to be known as the Right-to-Repair movement.
As expected, corporate push-back to such proposals has slowed progress. These practices contribute to a wasteful throwaway culture. Yet, despite the pocketbook savings and environmental benefits consumers would reap if they could fix their phones and even in-vehicle digital systems easily, many remain unaware of their growing rights to fix broken or worn down devices like smartphones, laptops, or computers.
Right to Repair: Consumers vs. Corporations
When devices break down or stop working properly, it makes more sense to fix or replace the damaged parts rather than buying a new product. However, consumers frequently find that their repair options are restricted to either manufacturer-approved outlets or through the company’s own service organization, often at a steep price. Moreover, relying on the annual introduction of newer and better, ever more expensive models that encourage upgrading instead of preserving devices, companies continue to design their products obsolescence built-in.
Repairs are more costly than buying a new product or upgrading. It isn’t surprising that broken devices are often discarded and become e-waste well before they stop working.
While hard-to-repair electronics might be a nuisance for consumers, it represents a greater problem for small businesses that provide more affordable repair services. Newer, slimmer models use glue or solder delicate chips and components in configurations that make it increasingly difficult to take products apart for repair. Meanwhile, manufacturers don’t provide the necessary schematics, manuals, software diagnostics, and special repair tools required to perform such repairs unless businesses become certified corporate partners.
Dissatisfaction with such questionable practices has grown to the point where politicians and even some companies cannot ignore the outcry from consumers. Over the past decade, a burgeoning movement advocating for individuals’ right to repair began coalescing, gaining significant traction. Proponents argue that consumers should be allowed to fix the items they bought, potentially saving $40 billion a year. They point out that authorized repair shops and professionals should be allowed access at reasonable prices to technical documents, parts, and tools needed to perform these repairs, allowing small businesses to operate.
Meanwhile, limited warranties and built in death-dates can lead to situations such as the Chromebook debacle that left many schools unable to use otherwise serviceable laptops after their software update licenses expired.
A recent global survey of laptop and desktop computers users found that up to 67% of participants weren’t familiar with their potential right to repair the products they own. Even if people’s awareness of the concept itself is surprisingly limited, Consumer Reports survey found that over 80% of adult Americans would favor right-to-repair legislation when asked.
E-Waste’s Concerning Environmental and Health Impacts
The United Nations estimates that worldwide e-waste reached a staggering 53.6 million metric tons in 2019, of which 6.93 million tons were attributable to the US alone. Only 17.4% of e-waste is recycled, with the remaining 82.6% either decomposing in landfills or being burned in incinerators.
E-waste is not just voluminous; it is inherently hazardous. Within the sleek casings of the gadgets we use and discard lies a cocktail of toxic substances. These include carcinogenic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, which can seep into soil and water sources, contaminating ecosystems and endangering human, animal, and marine health. Brominated flame retardants and synthetic PFAS, known as ‘forever chemicals,’ are used in circuit boards and display screens, persisting in the environment for centuries and accumulating in living organisms, which poses a potential risk to wildlife and humans.
In the US, e-waste related pollution disproportionately affects low-income ethnic communities, which are more likely to live in the vicinity of highly contaminated waste disposal areas and Superfund cleanup sites.
Until recently, a lot of the e-waste produced in the US was shipped overseas, primarily to Asia, leading to protective measures such as China’s 2018 National Sword policy which reduced the country’s recyclable waste imports by 30%. The disposal and mishandling of e-waste in unregulated recycling operations in developing countries and emerging economies further compound the problem. These informal recycling practices release harmful chemicals into the air, leading to respiratory ailments and other health issues among workers and nearby communities.
Our “throwaway culture” also exacts an enormous environmental toll, as manufacturing new electronics from scratch requires the destructive, carbon-intensive mining of vast amounts of lithium, gold, platinum, and rare earth elements.
Prolonging the life of electronic devices through repair and reuse can help significantly mitigate the carbon footprint associated with their production. Extending the lifespan of electronic devices by 50% to 100% can help reduce half of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with mineral mining, manufacturing, and supply chain logistics
Promising Signs of Progress
The Right to Repair is a contentious matter involving consumers, tech companies, and government because changes come with extensive economic, social, and environmental implications.
Ultimately, consumers should be able to repair or modify items they’ve legally purchased, and repair businesses should be granted access to the resources they require to service clients affordably and earn a living without undue bureaucratic restrictions.
“The right to repair does not mean that you have to fix all of your own stuff. It means that it should be possible for you to get it fixed somehow, whether you have a friend who is tech savvy or excited about opening things up and wants to do it, or if you want to take it down to a neighborhood repair shop,” said Kyle Wiens, co-founder of iFixit, in an interview with The New York Times.
Tech companies and industry lobby groups have supported their opposing stance to ‘Right to Repair’ by citing supposed issues pertaining to consumer safety risks, independent repair businesses’ inability to perform quality work, data security and privacy concerns, intellectual property, and clients’ design preferences. In May 2021, the Federal Trade Commission released a scathing report picking apart corporate arguments and finding “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”
After the non-profit As You Sow filed a shareholder resolution, Microsoft agreed to increase consumers’ repair options by the end of 2022. The company funded a third-party study that found repairing a product instead of replacing it can lead to a 92% reduction in e-waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
Though tentatively resistant, multiple companies have taken steps to address their device’s repairability over the last year, including Apple and Samsung. Most recently, Lenovo announced that it plans to make 80% of its devices consumer-repairable by 2025.
As awareness of the Right to Repair continued to gain momentum, multiple US states considered legislative proposals. On December 29, 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Digital Fair Repair Act, giving consumers in the state the right to fix their own electronics and protecting them from anti-competitive efforts to limit their options. In spite of interference from trade associations like TechNet, which effectively watered down the Digital Fair Repair Act by the time it was signed, the bill’s adoption is seen as a major victory by Right-to-Repair advocates.
In September 2023, California’s Right to Repair Act, Senate Bill 244, passed the State Assembly in a unanimous vote and became law. Perhaps most surprising of all, Apple expressed its support for the proposal in a letter, prompting more than a fair share of eyebrows raised in suspicion considering its track record of opposing Right to Repair initiatives.
Whether tech companies’ sudden change of heart toward repairability is an earnest commitment to more sustainable practices or simply a preemptive move to soften the blow of coming reforms, it’s important that consumers are provided adequate options to repair damaged products, not only as a more affordable alternative, but also to help reduce the ever growing tide of e-waste.
Definitely, we will all gain from this change, both by giving a second life to our electronics and producing less e-waste. Meanwhile, you can do something to help pass the Right to Repair bill in your state. The Right to Repair advocacy website helps people send messages to their representatives in support of legislation.
About the Author
Vlad Turiceanu is the Editor-in-Chief at windowsreport.com, a leading independent online publication that covers Microsoft’s Windows platform and its related products and services, connecting millions of people with the correct answers they seek online.