A cracked iPhone screen doesn’t have to mean that you need to buy a brand-new replacement.
While incentives from cellphone service providers make it tempting to upgrade every year or two, repairing old devices can do wonders for your wallet — and the environment.
That’s because it’s difficult to fully recycle electronics. Often, the gadgets are actually shipped to other continents where their valuable parts are harvested. Chemicals released during this process can contaminate local soil and water supplies, and unsalvageable materials end up in landfills.
If consumers double the length of time they use their gadgets, the amount of e-waste created could be cut by 50 percent.
iFixit aims to curtail this harmful cycle by providing free DIY repair manuals for everything from phones and household appliances to game consoles and cars.
It was founded in 2003 by Luke Soules and Kyle Wiens, engineering students at California Polytechnic State University at the time. The idea behind iFixit came about when Wiens couldn’t find the repair guide he needed to fix his iBook.
“I knew there was a service manual, and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t online,” says Wiens. “Apple was … [preventing] people from being able to fix their machines.”
After a bit of a struggle and lots of frustration, he figured out how to fix the computer. Then he decided to write his own repair manual for it and to make this one available on the Internet. “The nice thing about being young and stupid is you don’t know what’s not possible,” Wiens adds.
The repair manual received 10,000 hits during its first weekend online.
Why We Need to Fix Electronics Instead of Tossing Them
Though there are no hard numbers on how many gadgets iFixit has helped keep out of landfills, the site averages 3 million visitors per month. It is estimated that the site has helped tens of millions of people globally over its history. Some of iFixit’s most popular repair guides are for the iPhone, Samsung Android phones, Xbox 360 and the Starbucks Barista espresso machine.
Getting the maximum life span out of electronics is crucial: If consumers double the length of time they use their gadgets, the amount of e-waste created could be cut by 50 percent.
Cellphones are a prime example. A 2013 report by the Consumer Electronics Association reveals that one smartphone may contain as many as 50 different chemical elements; only about 15 of those, according to Wiens, can be recovered during recycling. “By weight that’s about 70 percent of the cellphone recovered during recycling, and even then it’s downcycled,” he says. “There’s no way to take a truck full of old cellphones, melt them down and make new cellphones out of them.”
When e-waste recyclers in the United States can’t find a way to efficiently or affordably recover materials from our outdated products, the products are shipped to Asian and African countries where scavengers pick through useful parts and harvest the rest for copper and gold from electrical connectors.
Chemicals released during this process contaminate the environment, and unsalvageable materials end up in landfills anyway.
Recyclers Need Service Manuals, Too
Once, while on a site visit of the world’s largest electronics recycling companies, Wiens noticed a worker on the disassembly line trying to take apart the exact same laptop that had given him trouble years earlier.
“She spent five minutes on this iBook and could not get this thing apart,” he says. “Finally she sets it aside and starts working on the next thing. Eventually she had to find somebody else who had taken that computer apart before and ask them how to do it.”
Recycling workers have to be fast when disassembling things — otherwise they’re losing the company money. Wiens says that not having access to the proper service manuals is a huge time waste, and it’s something electronics recyclers are dealing with for almost every product.
He stresses that consumers need to get manufacturers to make repair manuals public information.
“Last year we made 1.4 billion cellphones globally,” Wiens says. “If we’re going to make that many phones, we need to get the maximum out of them.”
Everything, he adds, should be recycled — eventually. “The goal is to do it at the last possible moment, to eke as much use as we possibly can out of things before we recycle them.”