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Americans Toss 151 Million Phones A Year. What If We Could Repair Them Instead?

In this photo taken on July 13, 2018, old mobile phones fill a bin at the Out Of Use company warehouse in Beringen, Belgium. European Union nations are expected to produce more than 12 million tons of electronic waste per year by 2020. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)
In this photo taken on July 13, 2018, old mobile phones fill a bin at the Out Of Use company warehouse in Beringen, Belgium. European Union nations are expected to produce more than 12 million tons of electronic waste per year by 2020. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

Our GDP rises when we throw things away. Make, use and toss, the story goes — and then, of course, buy more.

It’s a great system if you’re selling new things — especially things people don’t need. But the downsides are piling up. Literally.

From plastic coating the ocean floor, to recycling systems over-run with too much waste, to melting ice caps, the consequences of a throwaway economy are getting harder and harder to ignore. Every year, the world produces 1.3 billion tons of waste, and the number is climbing quickly. America has more than 2,500 landfills to accommodate our waste.

And it’s not only the highly-publicized single-use plastic straws and cups: Americans throw away 416,000 cell phones every day; 151.8 million phones trashed in a single year.

The futuristic explorers on “Star Trek” needed at least five different devices to do what a single smartphone does today. Sci-fi writers couldn’t even imagine technology that useful. And yet, we treat these phones as if they are disposable.

In this Sept. 21, 2018, file photo customers wait in line outside of the Apple Store at the Garden State Plaza on the day the new iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max were released in Paramus, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP)
In this Sept. 21, 2018, file photo customers wait in line outside of the Apple Store at the Garden State Plaza on the day the new iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max were released in Paramus, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP)

It turns out that the companies that make our smartphones, actively block repair of those devices. By refusing to make parts, manuals or repair software available to independent repair providers or users, companies prevent you from having what you need to fix your stuff. Apple, Samsung and many others don’t want anyone else deciding how, or when, to fix the devices they produce.

Let’s take Apple, which sold 217 million iPhones in fiscal year 2018. Apple won't sell you or an independent repair shop its custom tools, the original replacement parts, or the diagnostic software used in an Apple store or by authorized service providers, which limits your repair options dramatically. Apple products have bizarre star-shaped screws, so you need to buy a special screwdriver to open many of their devices. Recently, Apple copped to putting a computer chip on new MacBooks which allows the company to lock down the device if it detects certain unauthorized repairs.

More options for repair means lower cost and less waste.

Americans spent some $3 billion fixing broken smartphones screens, not to mention all the other phone repairs people pay for. There is a lot of money to make if you can dictate where the money must be spent.

It’s not just phones. It’s everything from tractors to dishwashers.

Consider household appliances. It’s not just your imagination: they don’t last as long as they used to. An Öko Institut study found that washing machines break a full two years sooner than they did just a decade ago. In recent testimony before a legislative study panel in Vermont, an appliance industry representative was asked why things are breaking sooner. The answer? The electronics, the circuitry.

It’s easy to feel helpless when a company with the brand awareness and financial clout of an Apple or a John Deere puts obstacles in your way. A growing movement, called “right to repair,” advocates for making repair of devices the norm, and throwing them out the exception.

It starts with empowering people to fix their stuff — giving people the parts, tools and information they need to keep stuff working and off the scrap heap.

Thus far, right to repair legislation has been introduced in 18 states. These laws would require the companies that manufacture devices including phones, appliances, tablets and tractors to provide independent repair shops and product owners with replacement parts, technical manuals, repair software and special tools at “fair and reasonable terms.” The main goal is to end a monopoly that manufacturers currently enjoy over the repair of electronics.

... when the expectation is that repair is too expensive, it further fuels the sense that everything is disposable.

As we head into 2019, a number of states, including Massachusetts, are getting ready to reintroduce their bills, as debate continues in state houses across the country. Legislators frequently tell me they get a lot of constituent feedback on this issue.

When the company that made a device is the only one who can decide whether or not to fix it, they can charge whatever they want to repair it. And when the expectation is that repair is too expensive, it further fuels the sense that everything is disposable. This coerces people to buy new products.

More options for repair means lower cost and less waste.

To get a sense of the scale, the non-profit Tech Dump takes donated electronics to repair or recycle, and estimates that only 14 percent can be repaired due to lack of parts and manuals. The world will generate 55 million tons of electronic waste this year, and if we could repair or repurpose that technology it would reduce some of the most toxic and expensive waste in the system.

More repair options could also make holiday shopping cheaper and greener, as it will mean more high-quality refurbished electronics will available. (If you are interested in buying refurbished goods, you can see my shopping guide for buying used electronics).

The right to repair movement is pushing for new laws that will protect consumers and our environment by providing us with what we need to fix our electronics. But it’s also an effort to bring about a change in our culture: nudging people towards the idea that we should expect things to be fixable, and that companies should get with the program.

Luckily, if these companies won’t help us fix our stuff, we still have the power to fix our laws.

Related:

Nathan Proctor Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Nathan Proctor leads U.S. PIRG's Right to Repair campaign. He lives in Arlington, Mass.

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