The Right to Repair

“We know there is too much e-waste because there is too little repair. We aren’t allowed to fix all the things that could be reused because of manufacturer policies blocking repair.”

Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of The Repair Association

Imagine for a moment that you are a farmer. The fields are ready for harvest, and you’re up before the crack of dawn. You climb into your tractor, fire it up and make a single pass on the first field – then boom, something is broken. You burn a little time diagnosing the issue. The sun is up now, but you’ve got it figured out. You could easily make this repair yourself… but you won’t be able to. The part you need is something only an authorized repairman or dealer can get, and you can’t install it either because of special tools or availability. So, a morning is wasted, then a day, then a week because you’re on a wait list to have your tractor repaired. Wasted time then becomes wasted money because that repairman is being paid three figures an hour and the part is outrageously expensive as well. 

A War on Self-Reliance

You may be thinking, “This isn’t a very accurate depiction of what farmers go through!” “He could easily fix the problem!” “Parts aren’t that outrageous to buy!”

The truth is, it’s a growing problem in the farming belt, and the rest of the U.S.  Farmers, phone and computer repair specialists, even folks who do home appliance repair on their own are becoming all too familiar with the scarcity of parts and resources to diagnose and repair their own broken technology. It’s an issue that is dooming more and more e-waste, containing environmentally harmful chemicals and heavy metals, to landfills and dumps before their actual end-of-life. Equally alarming is the open opposition to private repairs and tinkering from companies like John Deere and Apple, along with less vocal, but coordinated efforts from the auto industry. It’s a trend that, if allowed to be adopted by more big name manufacturers and companies, will have lasting economic and environmental effects. Individuals should have the right to repair their devices, electronics, and vehicles without exorbitant fees for tools or resources. 

A handful of states have introduced Right to Repair or Fair Repair legislature to their governments in order to begin a push against major companies and open the door for more private repairs. Along with the right to repair their devices, they’re also requesting access to the tools and schematics necessary to make them work legal and safe. The measure would create jobs in an industry that is needed now more than ever as the population continues to shift from reuse to purchasing anew. Competition in the economy could also bolster recycling efforts as more e-waste makes its way into the hands of eager repairmen rather than mixed in with other garbage. Most importantly, it ends exclusivity of repairs and saves the consumer a considerable amount of money. Exclusivity of repairs (example – Apple is the only party authorized to work on their devices) is nothing new, but planned obsolescence is taking a new face and uses that ‘buy-here-repair-here’ relationship to squeeze more dollars from less savvy buyers. 

Planned obsolescence is a pain in every consumer’s side, and one that will probably not be going away in the near future. It’s the driving force behind the success of Apple and other companies who continue to frequently update their designs, features, or end production so that consumers move to the newest and best thing. It’s also wasteful and shortsighted, especially without adequate recycling measures in place. While Apple does offer a device recycling program it does nothing to educate the end user on the dangers of not recycling or make any clear effort to disclose they offer such a program during the sale or life of the device. According to the Environmental Protection Agency and a 2012 Municipal Solid Waste report, 29% of e-waste is recycled. It is worth noting that the numbers shared by Earth911 and other sources setting this number at 12.5 are from 2005 which highlight a nice improvement  in seven years but this is still too low. Anything not recycled is improperly disposed of. In 2014, the U.S. exported 41.8 million tons of e-waste to underdeveloped countries exporting garbage to a region of the world unable to process the waste. 

So far, however, Big Tech and Agriculture haven’t been willing to discuss a resolution to the matter of private repairs. Instead they have spent large amounts of time and money to lobby these states governments to fight the bills and quash any organized efforts to pass the bills. 

 Education and The Way Forward

The lobbyists employed by these companies have spent hours educating legislators on the dangers of home repairs. Following the rash of news reports of exploding lithium-ion batteries in 2016 and early 2017, an Apple lobbyist reportedly used the reports to highlight the dangers of people poking around inside electronics to Nebraska senator Lydia Brasch. Apple also has security concerns that stem from the jailbreaking and modification of their products. Other more obvious hazards like electric shock, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and potential injury from moving parts (on larger machines) are also a risk to individuals who attempt to repair or diagnose broken items. It’s a danger that is easily lessened by proper education and careful attention to detail – something in the backbone of the Right to Repair movement.

Access to the tools for diagnosis, proper planning, and safe repair are necessary to engage the public in a matter that requires as much participation as we can muster. A better effort could also be taken, then, to educate capable youth in the fields of electricity, computer science, and details of engineering. The advent of the 3D printer and ease of learning both design and programming make this the perfect launch point for the golden age of recycling and reuse. On a planet of finite rare metals and limited natural resources, the ability to reclaim dead technology is one we must master in order to continue surviving. 

Unfortunately, the largest hurdle to beginning such a thing is to convince companies like John Deere to play along. According to a Deere licensing agreement, owners are prohibited from viewing the code of the software, how it works, or the signals it generates. Such practices by Deere and other companies claim that the software is under copyright and are the property of said companies. Where some might find it difficult to argue against their reasoning, this has prompted many others to question whether the definition of “ownership” is being threatened and if our rights as consumers are being challenged.  Software ownership rights are another big bump on the road to private repairs and greener future for the US and the world. It sounds like an unlikely request, to expect that big companies will divulge documentation and details on production and function, essentially sing “Kumbaya” with consumers and competitors, after spending millions to create a more efficient tractor or ultra-thin laptop. This reaction is easy to see as the legal process continues but, for maximum sustainability and in the interest of future generations here and abroad, let’s hope someone figures out a balance sooner rather than later. 

life_cycle_stages_of_electronics
Image courtesy of EPA.gov

If you want to make a difference, begin by educating yourself at sites like Repair.org or getting your hands dirty. Safely, of course!

 

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