How ‘Right to Repair’ Gadgets Is a Climate Issue
(Bloomberg) -- Some of us are old enough to remember the days when you could easily swap out a dud battery in your flip phone. Nowadays, repairing a smartphone -- or virtually any electronic device from a gaming console to a microwave oven to a fan -- can cost more than buying a new one. Manufacturers make it hard for technicians to get inside their products, source parts, or update software. So devices are just thrown away, generating potentially hazardous waste and forcing consumers to buy new items whose production further taxes the environment. Now frustrated consumers are demanding a “right to repair” their stuff. Some governments are responding, while the tech industry is resisting efforts to give products longer lives.
1. What’s behind the right to repair movement?
Since the first electronic goods emerged in the 1950s, buyers have sought to keep them going by repairing or replacing broken parts. Today, it’s clear that many products are designed to be unfixable. Manufacturers use non-standard screws, seal devices with glue or solder parts together unnecessarily, making it virtually impossible to replace individual components. The growing complexity of gadgets means technicians need dedicated manuals and tools that are hard to access or unavailable to the public. Some manufacturers use software to ensure only their own parts work. They’ve even been accused of updating software in products to deliberately impair performance with age. Apple Inc., which says it engineers “each software release to make sure it runs beautifully on all supported devices,” nevertheless has been a particular focus of grievance.
2. What are the complaints about Apple?
Most smartphones have unique components, so the only way to get spares is via the manufacturer. Apple, like other tech companies, doesn’t usually share spare parts with repair shops it hasn’t approved. Critics say that keeps the cost of fixing its products artificially high. When other workshops do switch out batteries or screens, users are plagued by glitches and error messages. Apple says unverified parts can lead to poor performance or even serious safety issues. The company launched a program in 2019 to allow third parties to fix devices no longer under warranty. It said it’s now trained more than 265,000 repair technicians and made its newer products easier to fix. But some parts, such as iPad displays, aren’t covered by the program. And right-to-repair campaigners say Apple still refuses to do some repairs and misleads consumers by claiming to fix their phones while actually selling them refurbished devices. Apple said it always states clearly when it’s offering a refurbished unit, and only does so when a customer’s device cannot be mended.
3. What’s at stake?
Discarded electronic goods generated an estimated 53.6 million tons of waste in 2019, and only 17% of that was properly recycled. This trash contains heavy metals and compounds including arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium, which if not disposed of appropriately can expose communities to the risk of cancer, birth defects and mutations. Moreover, the production and shipment of new devices to replace unfixable ones, not to mention the mining of the necessary raw materials, burns energy, often resulting in the emission of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Researchers estimated in a 2017 study that the production of a smartphone, for example, emits from 40 to 80 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, about the same as driving the typical passenger car as many as 200 miles (320 kilometers). As more people around the world purchase cellphones and other electronic devices, emissions from their production multiply. The authors of the 2017 study noted that in the previous 50 years, consumption of electronic devices grew sixfold though the world’s population only doubled.
4. How are tech companies resisting the right to repair?
Companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Tesla Inc. have spent heavily on lobbyists to make a case that right-to-repair laws would expose industry secrets, give third parties access to sensitive information, and put the safety and security of consumers at risk. When Apple representatives fought a right to repair bill in Nebraska in 2017, they told lawmakers it would turn the state into a “mecca” for hackers. Critics say the industry opposes a free market in repairs because it would lower prices for this work and encourage more people to get their gadgets fixed, hammering sales of new ones.
5. What are governments doing?
Laws enacted this year in the European Union and the U.K. are forcing makers of washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and TV monitors to ensure parts are replaceable with common tools that consumers can use easily. Now the EU is looking into regulating mobile phones, tablets and computers. In France, manufacturers must provide a “repairability score” for some electronic devices. Apple, for instance, gave its iPhone 12 Pro Max, released in late 2020, a six on a scale of zero to 10. In the U.S., President Joe Biden signed an executive order in July directing the Federal Trade Commission to introduce initiatives to boost competition, including measures limiting manufacturers from barring self- or third-party repairs of their products. Twenty-seven U.S. states considered right-to-repair bills this year, but more than half have already been voted down or dismissed, according to consumer groups tracking the proposals.
6. Are the new measures making a difference?
It’s early days. In the U.K., manufacturers have a two-year grace period to comply. The rules have limitations. Consumer rights advocates complain that they only benefit professional repairers as they don’t guarantee the right to repair for consumers and not-for-profit organizations. Also, the current legislative push focuses on physical components, not software. Replacing a faulty part may be of no use if your device also needs a software update. The regulations also skirt around a practice among manufacturers of selling some parts only as a bundled group, which keeps repair costs high. For example, a consumer looking to replace drum bearings in a washing machine may have to replace the whole drum, making the repair almost as expensive as a new machine.
The Reference Shelf
- A website of the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership contains reports on the mounds of trashed devices accumulating in the world and proposals on what to do about it.
- A study in the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development examines the health hazards of electronic waste.
- A report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and another published by the World Economic Forum explore the challenges of electronic waste.
- A 2017 study in the Journal of Cleaner Production evaluates the carbon footprint of the information and communications industry.
- The advocacy group U.S. PIRG advocates for the right to repair on its website.
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