This fight shouldn’t be necessary. But the advent of fast electronics, the risk of prison terms for trying to extend computers’ lives, and the deterioration of sustainable practices over the last few decades has led to the inevitable: a global movement asking for the right to repair.
In the 21st century, repairing your electronic device has become a revolutionary act; by defying manufacturers who want you to endlessly buy the deliberately short-lived products for which they take no responsibility, it dares to go against the consumerist flow.
When my Kindle’s battery died, I went to a high street electronics store to buy a new battery and, since I lack the tools, to see whether they could replace it. The shop assistant smiling told me this was impossible because the battery is built in, so all I could do was buy a new device. Except for the battery, there was nothing wrong with the ebook. I liked it, and didn’t need an upgraded, lighter, softer one. He wasn’t in the least bothered, surprised, or apologetic about this situation.
That was my first encounter with electronic gadgets’ premeditatedly short life, and with the popular practice of chucking those with no option of repair. An adjacent practice is the devaluing of repair through a seemingly fair process: yes, we can replace the broken part in the device… but it’s going to cost you as much as getting a new device. This is illustrated in this video about iPod’s dirty secret – by no means an isolated example. 👀
Wear and tear is inevitable, but all too often gadgets’ demise (or apparent demise) is caused by planned obsolescence. A strategy to sell more stuff – which is only speeding up – shouldn’t come as a surprise within economies built on limitless growth.
None of this seems right. Sure, if financial profit is the ultimate goal, this could be justified – but that’s a dynamic that’s fundamentally divorced from the reality of a finite planet.
Can we do something about this?
Definitely. Maintain, repair, recycle.
We are consumers. Otherwise, nobody would sell anything, right? Sure, they can force products and adherence to advances in technology onto us. No smartphone? No COVID app. And so on. You get the picture.
The absurdity of these wasteful practices is exacerbated by contemporary realities of ecological collapse, deterioration of workers’ rights, and slavery in the supply chains. Yet ‘no repair’ is becoming normalised. Chucking gadgets yearly (or even more frequently) shouldn’t be normal, despite the temptation to purchase a new, improved model. That’s just another practise designed to tempt us into buying more often: something new added every year to justify the irrelevance of the previous model.
This relatively new approach to buying has been successfully introduced into our over-consumerist society by massive corporations – which, in many cases, became massive by driving global round-the-clock purchasing.
Because of their moderate prices and endless upgrades, many people don’t bother to prolong their functionality. But, we can start to do something about this by being good stewards of our gadgets.
Maintenance might sound like common sense: prolong the life of beloved gadgets by not chucking them about or dropping them in water, and generally behaving like they aren’t just conveniences to take for granted. And not just because we pay money for our gadgets; we must be aware of the effort and unseen costs underpinning such products.
We think in terms of cheap or expensive, but fail to assess true value. The cost of electronics rarely mirrors reality.
Many people around the world work on these devices: mining the necessary minerals, building them, shipping them, selling them. We might understand that superficial price tag better if we fully appreciated the true cost: workers underpaid throughout the supply chain; the conflict minerals; the toxins unleashed in land and water, poisoning others’ livelihoods.
I’ve managed to maintain my old electronic devices. Some are fully functional, but too slow these days. Like my Chromebook (more than eight years old) – still in use for basic work, against all the odds, and in spite of the consumerist machinery that would have chucked it on the e-waste pile five years ago. Same with my cheap Kubik MP3 player (more than 10 years old): magically still playing music despite its many display errors and tired buttons. On the plus side, it looks unappealing to pickpockets, and no marketeers are counting my minutes and listing my moods.
But our responsibility for maintenance shouldn’t be the final word about what we own and use. Repair should be on the cards too – which is where producers have to want to prolong products’ lives just as much as their owners do.
Repair prolongs gadgets’ functionality – which saves money, but also minimises e-waste: a global ecological catastrophe rarely discussed by the mass media. There’s not much accountability on the part of manufacturers, and little regulation regarding proper disposal.
Nothing lasts forever, but once upon a time electronics were built to last longer, same as furniture, buildings, and clothes. My 94-year-old grandma has a functional radio from the 1950s, and a fridge from 1987. This longevity may result from extreme maintenance and minimal use, but also from good quality, and the network of small independent repair businesses which thrived until only a few decades ago.
Those of a certain age may still remember the many neighbourhood repair shops buzzing with work, people, and a feeling of community. Most are now gone. How are they supposed to repair a phone when the company disallows anyone but themselves from doing it, and even then, only when under warranty?
With a little help from the internet, communities, and dedicated campaigners, repairs are still possible, even in the no-repair 21st century. Here are some useful pointers to give you hope and practical advice:
Right to Repair
Complacency has gone too far, so common sense needed a push. Hence, Right to Repair, which refers mainly to legislation making it easier for consumers to repair their gadgets, from smartphones to game consoles, and harder for manufacturers to create unsustainable products.
In Europe, Right to Repair is also a coalition of organisations based in several countries which represent community repair groups, social economy actors, self-repair, and any citizen who would like to advocate for a universal right to repair.
Follow or join them and you’ll find lots of up to date information about where you can repair, how you can join the fight, what petitions you can sign, and which skills you can add to the cause.
Public pressure and the work of such advocacy organisations and coalitions has led to victories like these EU ‘right to repair’ rules for appliances, which come into force next year, meaning firms will have to make appliances longer-lasting, and supply spare parts for machines for up to 10 years.
In the US, you can join the Digital Right to Repair Coalition (or the Repair Association) and other similar organisations.
These are just a few examples. The repair revolution is expanding exponentially, despite powerful corporations’ attempts to smother it.
Restart Project is a people-powered charity and social enterprise born in 2013 out of the frustration with “the throwaway, consumerist model of electronics that we’ve been sold, and the growing mountain of e-waste that it’s leaving behind”; though best known for its repair parties, it is also knee-deep in changing policy regarding the right to repair.
Its restart parties take place in various locations in the UK – usually at the weekend, so more people can attend – and, with branches on three continents (over sixty groups in twelve countries), it just keeps expanding.
How does it work?
1. Hold onto your devices. Don’t recycle them yet, even if keeping them feels pointless.
2. Join a repair party close to your home and take the gadgets with you.
3. A volunteer specialist will greet you and have a look at them. Explain the problem, and they’ll tell you whether there’s life in the devices yet.
4. If nothing can be done on the spot, they’ll ask you to buy some parts, then bring them to the next repair party to get it fixed. If it’s a lost cause, it may be good to donate the functional parts to those who need them.
Check out the Restart Project website to see smiley faces holding onto their freshly fixed toasters, smartphones, and vacuum cleaners.
👉 Remember: You can share your skills too, not just broken gadgets.
Not only an online compendium of repair guides “for every thing, written by everyone”, iFIXit is also an online community. Like many similar activities, in these days of physical distancing, imagine repair parties moved online.
This wiki-based site teaches people how to fix almost anything. Anyone can create a repair manual for a device, or edit the existing set of manuals to improve them. At its core, its goal is to empower individuals to share their technical knowledge with the rest of the world.
Independent repair shops
Last, but not least, look out for the traditional repair shops still magically holding out. They’re usually tiny, easy-to-miss doors on the high street – often family-run businesses that have somehow survived the real estate and corporate urban offensive. Sometimes they’re mentioned as quirky hidden gems in glossy magazines, satisfying tourists’ needs for the ‘local’ and ‘authentic’, while forgetting ‘essential’ and ‘practical’.
After maintenance and repair comes the recycling of our devices. E-waste is “world’s fastest-growing solid-waste stream” and also the most toxic to our health. In the US, 70 percent of heavy metals and toxic substances in landfills come from e-waste; recycling of electrical devices must be taken seriously.
But they’re not potato peels, so where to throw gadgets away? The rubbish bin? The recycling bin? Or a special collecting bin for electronics, the kind sometimes found in cities?
Businesses like Electronic Recyclers International (“the largest fully integrated IT & Electronics Asset Disposition (ITAD) provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States”) charge clients to collect their electronic devices and securely wipe their data. Sometimes they refurbish and resell devices. It’s big business, but their environmentally and socially responsible dismantling of electronic waste covers only a tiny fraction of global and even local e-waste.
More electronics stores are taking back devices to be recycled, and some mobile companies might give you points or even cash in exchange for your old phone.
It may seem like a hassle to contact someone to arrange pick-up of your device, or to go to a specific location (as in some cities) to chuck unrepairable devices into special boxes in the street. Contact your local authority. They should know what recycling options are available in your neighborhood. You can also ask whether your local repair shop needs them for parts.
Recycling resources in the UK
The Recycle Your Electricals Campaign can help locate electrical reuse and recycling centres near you with this electronics recycling locator. Browse their website for more useful information about recycling, tips for getting old electronics fixed, and the importance of donating them.
We can all:
✔️ Prolong the lives of our devices through good maintenance – in spite of this Kurt Vonnegut quote: “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”
✔️ Take our broken devices to a repair party or an independent repair shop, if repair through the manufacturer isn’t possible, or too expensive.
✔️ Maintain, repair, reuse, recycle, and only buy if we must, ensuring to purchase ethical products that enable repair.
✔️ Campaign for fair supply chains and sustainable business models.
✔️ Join the many online and offline communities to share our repairing skills.
▪️ The future of technology is endangered by element scarcity; repairing and recycling is increasingly necessary.
▪️ Your gadget contains many valuable elements. So many, Japan is making the 2020 Olympic medals from discarded smartphones.
▪️ Start asking questions and demand accountability. Things don’t have to be this way. You are a consumer and, believe it or not, that means you have power to help change this situation.
Further reading ⤵️
‘The Human Cost of Our Phones’
‘The Slavery Supported by That Device in Your Pocket’
‘Smartphone Savvy: How to Buy a New Mobile Without It Costing the Earth’
‘What Are “Right to Repair” Laws, and What Do They Mean for You?’
‘We Need Right-to-Repair Laws Now More than Ever’
Featured image by Dan-Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash