The Right to Repair Movement: Reducing E-Waste and Saving Money - Public Goods Blog

The Right to Repair Movement: Reducing E-Waste and Saving Money

“Why doesn’t anything last anymore?,” I complained to my husband as I went online to buy a replacement charging station.

macbook pro circuitboard

We had owned it for less than a year before it stopped doing its basic function: charging.

While my 90-year-old grandmother still has some 50-year-old kitchen appliances — and I even own a Victrola from the 1920s that will still crank out a tune — it seems like we are constantly replacing smartphones, appliances and other electronics that are younger than our small children.

When my charging station dies, that’s it. I don’t know how to fix it. No repair manual came with it. I don’t even know where to start or where I could even find someone to repair it.

So I go online, buy a new one and try to find a place that will recycle my old one. The problem with taking e-waste to recycling centers in the U.S. is that not all of it is repurposed or refurbished. Often these “recyclers” will simply ship the devices overseas to be deconstructed in developing countries. In these places, the toxic materials are not treated with the appropriate amount of caution, and they become a detriment to the local environments.

As someone who is concerned about my impact on the environment, I know repairing and reusing is essential for keeping more items out of the waste stream. I don’t want to throw it away; I’d prefer for the things I purchase to last.

It turns out I am not alone. There is a whole movement aimed at giving consumers the ability to repair the items they own rather than this endless cycle of buy and replace.

The Right to Repair movement advocates for the right of consumers to repair or choose to use independent repair shops to fix the electronics they own.

The Right to Repair movement advocates for the right of consumers to repair or choose to use independent repair shops to fix the electronics they own. This advocacy is in direct response to manufacturer repair monopolies, where fixes are primarily offered only through the car dealership or the cell phone company where the product was originally purchased.

While you are legally allowed to repair your own cell phone or use an independent repair shop, companies like Apple and Samsung have made it frustratingly difficult to do so, keeping their repair manuals secret and refusing to sell spare parts. In some cases an independent repair shop has been able to open a device and identify the problem. But without being able to purchase the replacement part from the manufacturer, they are unable to perform the repair.

Due to lack of competition, these repairs aren’t cheap. Often, the cost is nearly equal to buying the newest version of the item. So, we buy a new one and our old one becomes waste. The reason for making this choice may be financially sound, but it has a negative impact on the environment.

Electronic waste (e-waste), which refers to all of the electronics that are no longer in use, is a major problem around the world. The UN estimated that 50 million tons of e-waste is generated each year. National Geographic claimed that in 2016 each person generated an average 13.5 pounds of e-waste — or 54 pounds for a family of four — and that number is 3.3 times less than what the average American family produces in a year. Of that American e-waste, about 30% gets landfilled, incinerated or sent to developing countries where it is dismantled by local workers without proper safety precautions.

When we can expand the lifespan of manufactured goods through repair, we are able to cut down on the e-waste — which is a toxic mix of chemicals and heavy metals — that goes into landfills.

The History of Right to Repair

Before computers even went mainstream, manufacturers wanted to monopolize the ability to repair them. When IBM was found in violation of anti-monopoly laws in 1956, it was forced to allow independent repair through the 1956 Consent Decree. This regulation required IBM to allow a used equipment market and to release parts and information for repairs. As a result, the repair business became competitive and reasonably priced until 1996 when the Consent Decree was lifted. Then the trouble began again.

Keep in mind that while this policy applied to computers, many products we do not think of as computers still have computerized internal parts. When the auto industry began incorporating computerized internal parts, they fell under the protections of computers.

Car manuals, instead of providing information for repairs, would simply tell the user to take it back to the car dealership for repairs. Car mechanics began to feel the pinch.

As consumers started dutifully taking their cars back to the dealerships for repairs, parts became unavailable to mechanics. This shortage led to the introduction of the Automotive Right to Repair in Congress, but nothing was achieved on the federal level.

Then the automotive repair associations wisely began to focus on state legislation. In 2012 the Motor Vehicles Owners’ Right to Repair Act passed unanimously and became the example for all future attempts for Right to Repair legislation.

This success has galvanized the movement. In 2019, 20 states have considered Right to Repair bills in their state legislatures.

The Opposition

As you might expect, opposition to Right to Repair laws comes from the companies that create the products. Brands such as Apple, John Deere and Microsoft have attempted to block legislation, citing concerns for security, privacy and safety. While these companies — skilled in marketing — create arguments that make it sound like they have the consumer’s best interests at heart, the truth is they’d rather make more money from servicing their machines or from persuading consumers to buy a new one.

What’s Happening Now

As a result of the need for fair repair, the iFixit community was formed. They describe themselves as “just some folks with repair on our minds,” and they are working to create free repair manuals for virtually any device.

On this website, anyone can create a repair manual for a device, and anyone can also edit the existing set of manuals to improve them. The focus is on empowering individuals to share their technical knowledge with the rest of the world.

To circumvent these community efforts, tech companies have fought back in creative ways, including creating parts — like tiny screws and adhesives — that can’t be found anywhere else.

Nonetheless, in 2018 the right-to-repair movement secured a major victory when the Digital Millenium Copyright Act [DMCA] granted copyright exemptions for repair of nearly everything. This legislation meant that, legally, you are now allowed to fix your phone, refrigerator or Alexa, but the copyright law cannot require original equipment manufacturers [OEMs] to sell the necessary items needed to perform these repairs. That’s why the right-to-repair movement is pushing for OEMs to provide both consumers and repair businesses with access to manuals, tools, service parts and firmware.

While Right to Repair has proven to be popular across the entire political spectrum, this year two 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have proposed national right-to-repair laws as part of their campaigns. Both senators focused on the rights of farmers to be able to repair farming equipment, and, by doing so, drew attention to the need for fair repair that affects everyone, not just farmers.

The Right to Repair movement is gaining momentum. Consumers will likely see some changes in the coming years, and it couldn’t happen a moment too soon.

What Can You Do to Help?

  • Contact your state representatives about the need for Fair Repair legislation in your state.
  • Support local repair shops.
  • Fix your electronics whenever possible. You can find a wealth of free-manuals created by users on the iFixit website.
  • If you already know how to fix something, you can teach others by writing a free repair manual.
  • Donate your old electronics to repair manual writers.
  • Research which smartphones and tablets are repairable before you buy.

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