Delaying disposal: Fixing it instead with the right-to-repair

Illustration of person fixing phone
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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While he was an undergraduate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2003, Kyle Wiens tried to fix his laptop, an Apple iBook G3, and couldn’t find the service manual anywhere on the internet. “I kind of muddled through the repair,” he recounted. “I succeeded … but it was more challenging than it should have been.” Later, he found that the manual had previously been posted online, but Apple’s lawyers had sent takedown notices to have it removed. “That really struck me wrong,” Wiens said.

Probing deeper, Wiens found that this was not an isolated issue. Manufacturers of all kinds of goods were going to great lengths to prevent public access to repair information. So Wiens and a buddy wrote their own and put it online for free. “They can’t stop us from doing that!” he laughed.

One manual became several, until eventually they had published service manuals for every single Apple product. They called their website iFixit, and decided it would become the free, crowdsourced online repair manual for everything. Their philosophy? “If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it.”

Defending the things we own against the unraveling pull of entropy is not a new idea, as philosophies go. But in a world where the things we buy feel sleek, impenetrable and eventually disposable — and the strain on the Earth’s resources feels increasingly dire — fixing our stuff can be an act of defiance.

The right-to-repair movement is run by a coalition of activists, technologists and repair professionals who share a unifying goal: secure and defend our right to break, take apart, repair and refurbish everything we own. They represent more than a push to make it easier to replace shattered phone screens and worn-out batteries. It’s a push to dramatically transform our relationship with our belongings.

Today, iFixit has more than 61,500 free manuals for products ranging from phones and cameras to cars and household appliances. It also sells tools and replacement parts and creates popular teardown videos in which new devices are disassembled and examined to educate the public on how they’re made.

They’ve been wildly successful: Wiens reported that iFixit gets 10 million unique visitors a month. “In the last year, something like 13% of Californians used iFixit,” he said.

Empowering people with the instructions, tools and parts they need to repair their devices is part of the battle against entropy, and iFixit has been a pioneer in that effort. But the next step is to pass legislation requiring manufacturers to make it all available from the get-go.

Right now, we only have this kind of legislation for cars: In 2012, Massachusetts passed the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act, which requires car manufacturers to make the parts, tools, diagnostic codes and documentation necessary for repair available to consumers and independent mechanics. Car manufacturers have generally complied with the act nationwide to avoid having to follow different standards in different states. This law is the reason you currently have a choice between changing your tire yourself, taking it to an independent mechanic or bringing it back to the dealer for service.

Repair advocates are pushing for these kinds of requirements across industries, from medical devices and farming equipment to consumer electronics, such as your smartphone and laptop. The objective is to eliminate the potential for manufacturers to monopolize the service and repair of their products.

Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, a repair advocacy organization founded in 2013, put it simply: When you buy a product, you’ve already paid the manufacturer everything they’re entitled to be paid for. Manufacturers should not be able to force you to pay them for upkeep of the product down the line. “They don’t get another bite at the apple once you’ve bought,” Gordon-Byrne said.

Designing for repair

The right-to-repair begins with product design. Devices that are difficult to repair or have short lifespans often earn their manufacturers accusations of planned obsolescence — promoting rapid device turnover in pursuit of profit. Repair advocates are pushing “original equipment manufacturers,” or OEM, to design devices that are amenable to repair.

Ideally, devices should be both durable, so that they can withstand long-term use and protect the delicate components inside, and modular, so parts such as batteries that break or wear out can easily be removed and replaced. 

The aesthetic trend toward sleeker and more lightweight devices makes this tricky. Small devices require minuscule parts, intricately pieced together to take up as little space as possible. iFixit’s teardowns and repair manuals often include warnings against accidentally snipping connective wiring or breaking a fragile piece of inner framing while servicing a device. 

And that’s if you can even get them open. Some devices, like Apple’s AirPods, are completely unrepairable. “AirPods are $175 disposable earphones,” said Paul Roberts, founder of SecuRepairs, a coalition of information security professionals advocating for the right-to-repair. “You cannot repair them. You cannot replace the battery when it’s died. … If there’s some circuit board failure inside the little AirPod, you’re screwed. You throw them out and you buy a new pair of disposable $175 Bluetooth earbuds.”

Microsoft, on the other hand, recently made significant design strides toward making repair easier. The Surface line of laptops and tablets has historically been notoriously difficult to repair: iFixit publishes rankings on how easy products are to fix, and Wiens said version after version of the Microsoft Surface scored a 0 or 1 on its scale of 0 to 10. They were difficult to open, he said, and the batteries were glued in, making them impossible to replace.

But the Surface Laptop 3 and the Surface Pro X, both released fall 2019, featured major redesigns that Wiens said “dramatically improved ease of access.” Although the batteries are still glued in, they both have more modular storage and user-replaceable SSD cards, earning them scores of 5 and 6, respectively. Wiens said this represents “the biggest single-generation shift we’ve seen in scoring across our 15 years of doing this. It’s a really, really impressive effort on that team’s part.” 

Ultimately, modularity, durability and aesthetics don’t have to represent a trade-off. It comes down to a design challenge.

“The question is, what’s the incentive right now to do that if you’re going to make more money forcing people to upgrade every two years?” — Nathan Proctor

“I’m confident that you can make a great, durable, repairable phone that people would want to use,” said Nathan Proctor, director of the Right to Repair campaign organized by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG. “The question is, what’s the incentive right now to do that if you’re going to make more money forcing people to upgrade every two years?”

The case for independent repair

If the original manufacturer is the only place you can go to have a device repaired, it is at liberty to set a pricing scheme that pushes you to replace rather than repair the device. Roberts gave a hypothetical example. Even if what’s ailing your device is the failure of a 25-cent chip, the manufacturer might “make sure that it’s a $390 repair when buying a new one is $415,” he said, “because that’s going to be good for business.”

The existence of independent repair options incentivizes manufacturers to keep repair prices competitive. And preserving this choice has a slew of further advantages.

Taking the example of an Apple product: You could take your device to an Apple store or to an Apple Authorized Service Provider such as Mobile Kangaroo in Downtown Berkeley, which purchases parts directly from Apple and has a certain number of Apple-certified technicians on staff.

But you also have the option to go to a local independent repair professional like Joe iPhone Unlock and Repair Services, or an independent repair shop like My Emergency Guy on College Avenue or iResurrect Repairs on Telegraph Avenue. Businesses like these use “aftermarket” parts, which are not made by the original manufacturer.

Device parts have quality grades just like car parts do, Wiens said. This spectrum allows customers to choose the parts they can afford to use. iFixit sells aftermarket parts that are the same quality as OEM ones, but may have slight differences that keep them within the bounds of copyright law. For example, he said, the replacement back glass panels they sell for iPhone Xs don’t have the Apple logo on the back.

Independent repair shops are also not subject to limitations imposed by OEM, so they can bail consumers out of situations that OEM technicians may not cover. For instance, Phillip Roselle, owner of My Emergency Guy, said his shop has specialized techniques for recovering data from liquid-damaged or otherwise compromised hard drives. His technicians will also spare you the sales pitch to buy a new device when you bring in one that’s broken.

In August 2019, responding to pressure from the right-to-repair movement to support independent providers, Apple announced a program through which “Independent Repair Providers” can purchase “genuine parts and tools” from the company.

Although the program was initially celebrated as a win for the right-to-repair, it ultimately imposes hefty requirements on participating businesses. The program contract gives Apple the right to confiscate unauthorized parts and tools and conduct unannounced facility inspections — even after businesses leave the program.

 “It’s a totally unsignable contract,” Proctor said. He added that he finds it encouraging that Apple is “figuring out the logistics” of working with repair providers so that it will be in a better position to comply with right-to-repair legislation once it’s enacted — but the current program is nowhere near sufficient.  

Gordon-Byrne concurred, denouncing the program as “all air, no substance.”

Roselle said My Emergency Guy looked into applying for the program, but ultimately decided against joining because they didn’t want to give up control over their business.

Apple spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.

Recycling as a last resort

Although they come in sleek, clean-looking boxes from sleek, clean-looking stores, the behind-the-scenes of consumer electronics manufacturing is ugly. “We’ve outsourced all of our manufacturing to places where we don’t have to look at the dirtiness of it,” Gordon-Byrne said. “We don’t see the mining. We don’t see the sweatshops. … We don’t see it. It’s in Asia.”

Unfortunately, the picture is even uglier at the end of a product’s lifespan. E-waste is the fastest-growing trash stream on the planet and most of it ends up in landfills in poorer countries, leaching toxins like lead and mercury into the soil and groundwater and poisoning nearby communities. Certain components of e-waste — heavy metals such as gold, silver and copper, and rare-earth minerals — are valuable and recyclable, but the process for extracting them requires huge amounts of energy.

Although they come in sleek, clean-looking boxes from sleek, clean-looking stores, the behind-the-scenes of consumer electronics manufacturing is ugly.

The United Nations reports that generally only 20% of the world’s e-waste is formally recycled. When companies pour resources into optimizing the process, they can improve the ratio slightly: Proctor said in a best case scenario, Apple’s “vaunted recycling program” can recover 40% of the raw weight of an iPhone for recycling. But the remainder is still discarded in landfills.

For this reason, recycling only makes environmental or economic sense when the device is completely unrepairable, Wiens said.

Consider an iPhone 3G, which today might be worth around $40, Wiens said. If you can keep it working well enough to play games on it, you’d have a $40 gaming machine. “That’s a great deal,” Wiens said. “But if you were to grind up that iPhone and extract the gold and the copper and the silver from it, it’s going to be worth 20 cents, maybe.”

The longer a device can be kept working, the lower its environmental impact per year, and the lower the demand for a replacement.

As people repair their devices, “there’s less pressure on buying new ones,” Gordon-Byrne said. “Very sorry for you, Mr. Manufacturer, but that means there’s less production of stuff that’s only incrementally different from last year’s model and that will reduce the amount of environmental damage. Less is always going to be less.”  

Resistance from manufacturers

Although the economic and environmental benefits of repair are gradually gaining public support for the movement, manufacturers continue to dig their heels in to prevent unauthorized tinkering.

Apple’s vice president of corporate law testified to Congress last July that customers could hurt themselves if they try to conduct a repair without proper training. Failure to replace certain parts properly, the testimony stated, could damage the battery and create a risk of injury or overheating.

It’s true that opening an iPhone to repair it presents a safety risk. 

“The batteries are lithium-ion in most cases,” Roselle said. “If you puncture it … the battery will burst into flames. I’ve seen that happen.”

To show more concern about customer safety, Wiens said, the company could provide information about how to conduct repairs safely. In order to mitigate the risk of a battery exploding, for example, he said you just have to make sure you let it run all the way out of charge.

Wiens pointed out that the risk involved in repairing an iPhone is no greater than the risk we assume on an everyday basis, like when we change the tire on a car.

“Is it the manufacturer’s fault if you don’t follow their instructions and you hurt yourself in the process of changing a tire? No. That’s just part of how the world works. We accept personal responsibility,” he said. “The fear of a one-in-a-million accident should not stop us from doing everyday preventative maintenance on our products.”

In addition, manufacturers and their lobbyists often claim that providing repair information such as error codes and diagnostic software may compromise device security by putting them at risk of being “hacked” by nefarious actors. 

Roberts said OEM use this argument because they know legislators are rarely well-versed in the details of cybersecurity and threats of security compromise seem “very scary” to them. He founded SecuRepairs to address this problem by “allowing the information security community to speak with one voice” and dispel this kind of “FUD” — fear, uncertainty and doubt.

At legislative hearings, Roberts said SecuRepair now sends an information security expert to  testify right after an industry lobbyist to clarify that there is no inherent trade-off between security and repairability.

Systems that rely on keeping their functionality under wraps to remain secure, he argues, violate a basic maxim of information security: “There is no security in obscurity.” In other words, if your system is secure because no one understands how it works, it isn’t actually secure.

If consumers and independent repair technicians had access to diagnostic software and security keys, they would be able to continue servicing and patching security holes beyond when the manufacturer stops supporting the product, greatly extending its usefulness.

Making security systems more transparent would also improve long-term security by allowing consumers to extend service for devices beyond when manufacturers decide to discontinue it, like when Sonos recently announced it was discontinuing software support for devices manufactured before 2011. If consumers and independent repair technicians had access to diagnostic software and security keys, they would be able to continue servicing and patching security holes beyond when the manufacturer stops supporting the product, greatly extending its usefulness.

The right-to-repair lifesaving medical equipment

In the medical device industry, the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically heightened the stakes of the right-to-repair. With thousands of COVID-19 patients requiring ventilators and other lifesaving equipment, hospitals are unearthing old models from storage and the demand for repair is soaring.

In a global pandemic, it’s no longer safe for OEM technicians to travel from hospital to hospital to service overburdened equipment. So Wiens and the iFixit team are working to gather information “from all corners of the earth” to create a searchable repertoire of service information that will enable hospitals to repair medical devices on their own.

At the U.S. PIRG office in Washington, D.C., Proctor is working on parallel efforts. At the time of his interview, he was finalizing a 43,000-signature petition pushing biomedical device manufacturers to release the repair information and diagnostic software keys necessary for hospital-employed technicians to service the equipment themselves.

Asked whether he’s optimistic that the pandemic could prove a turning point in the movement, Proctor replied: “The damage to society and to us as a people caused by these restrictive, monopolized repair services is pretty obvious in light of what the people are seeing in the crisis.”

Fixing forward

Before the pandemic, the right-to-repair coalition was very excited about its position. There were right-to-repair bills filed in 20 states across the U.S., including AB 1163 in California. “We were really jazzed,” Gordon-Byrne said.

In light of COVID-19, legislative priorities have shifted, and it may be some time before states are able to pick the conversation back up. “We always knew this was going to be a long road,” Roberts said. “This is definitely a detour.”

But the coalition remains optimistic. One thing that bolsters its confidence is the campaign’s broad bipartisan appeal.

“This isn’t really a political issue,” Gordon-Byrne said. “It’s kind of basic. You bought it, you own it. It’s yours. You should be able to fix it.”

In a world racing toward upgrades, it feels unlikely that manufacturers will stop churning out slightly sleeker, slightly sexier versions of products every year. But the release of a new version need not convince us that the one we already have is suddenly useless.

Learning to repair our devices — or opting to support local independent repair shops — will save us money, reduce our ecological footprint and push us to think beyond our use-and-discard mindset toward a more circular, less consumptive model.

“Somehow, in the last 40 or 50 years, we’ve been trained slowly to start thinking about throwing stuff away and dragging it out to the curb, buying a new one. That’s really costly for everybody,” Roberts said. “We need to unlearn that, and start getting a lot more comfortable taking out a screwdriver, popping that case off and saying, ‘OK, what is actually wrong with this thing, and can we fix it?’ ”

Contact Sonnet Phelps at [email protected].