Could letting consumers fix their iPhones help save the planet?
Earlier this summer, Adam Fullerton’s mother-in-law was on vacation in Taiwan when she inadvertently splashed some water on her iPhone 6, killing it.
She did what many customers with a broken device do, and took the phone back to the manufacturer to repair. But Apple told her the device was unfixable, and offered to sell her a replacement for $299. Instead, she turned to Fullerton, an expert phone fixer and operations manager for two Boston-based walk-in repair shops. For less than $40, Fullerton was able to purchase two replacement chips for the phone’s motherboard and a new screen, swap everything out, and get the device working again.
Fullerton told that story to Massachusetts’ Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure last month during a public hearing over a digital right-to-repair bill that would make it easier for everyone to fix their electronic devices at home or by taking them to an independent shop. His story neatly makes a case for the right-to-repair movement, whose guiding principle is that if you buy it, you should be allowed to fix it.
Manufacturers have long attempted to monopolize repair by voiding the warranties of customers who make fixes on their own, refusing to sell parts to unauthorized shops, imposing software locks on devices that have been repaired independently, and restricting the types of repairs authorized shops are allowed to do. In the case of iPhones, fixing a water-damaged phone isn’t one of them — liquid damage voids the warranty. That’s why, if Apple had its way, Fullerton’s mother-in-law’s phone would be an expensive brick.
Right to repair is having a moment. More than 20 other state houses around the country have considered bills like Massachusetts’ this year. Several 2020 presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have endorsed the right to repair in their campaign platforms. So has the New York Times editorial board. The European Union just adopted new repairability standards for household appliances, though not personal tech devices, and polls suggest the right to repair is broadly popular across partisan lines.
Right-to-repair laws have the potential to save more than waterlogged iPhones. Advocates argue that increased access to repair services would be a major environmental victory, prolonging the life of devices that take considerable energy to manufacture and that become dangerous, hard-to-handle waste when they die.
“The products we buy are intensely environmentally destructive,” says Kyle Wiens, CEO of electronics repair company iFixit. “If we’re going to solve the climate crisis, we’re going to have to find a way to make all the products in our lives last longer.”
The impact of buying new
For many of us, electronic waste is the first thing that comes to mind when we think about the environmental impact of our devices. And for good reason: It’s the fastest growing waste stream on the planet, we’re only recycling about 20 percent of it, and we’re tossing much of the rest into landfills, where it releases toxic chemicals into the air, water, and soil. But while e-waste is a huge problem, we often fail to consider the even bigger planetary toll our gadgets take before they’ve left the box.
The smartphones, TVs, and other devices that litter our lives are complex amalgams of metals, minerals, plastic, glass, and other ingredients sourced from all over the planet. Mining and refining these materials requires considerable energy and creates lots of pollution. Manufacturing parts, assembling those parts into products, and shipping those products around the world for sale takes even more energy. All told, upwards of 70 percent of the carbon emissions associated with a personal computing device arise during its production, according to a 2017 report by Greenpeace.
Manufacturing’s outsized impact, along with the aforementioned e-waste problem, mean that from the planet’s perspective it’s almost always a better choice to hold onto an old phone or laptop rather than replace it. The same is generally true for home appliances, according to a 2018 analysis by Germany’s Öko-Institut. Even the benefits of purchasing a hybrid car versus running your gas guzzler into the ground aren’t so clear cut when you consider the carbon impact of putting a new car together.
Getting just a little more life out of our machines adds up. A recent report from the European Environment Bureau found that extending the lifetime of all laptops, smartphones, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners in the European Union by a year would save about 4 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually by 2030.
And right-to-repair advocates argue that increased access to affordable repair will help. In a recent survey of 1,432 cell phone users, 69 percent said they would prefer to fix a broken phone than to buy a new one. In 2018, after Apple slashed its battery replacement fee for out-of-warranty iPhones, sales of new phones dropped. As CEO Tim Cook wrote in a letter to investors earlier this year, customers’ taking advantage of battery replacement deals was partly responsible.
“The more that repair becomes accessible to regular people like me or independent repair providers,” says Liz Jardim, a senior corporate campaigner at Greenpeace, the more it will “normalize the idea that we don’t always have to buy brand new products.”
A legislative victory in sight?
The digital right-to-repair bill being considered by Massachusetts is pretty simple. It requires that manufacturers make parts and diagnostic repair tools available to everyone, not just businesses that have been authorized by the company. By doing so, it would help level the playing field between manufacturers and everyone else, hopefully resulting in more affordable repair options for consumers.
It would, for instance, allow Fullerton to swap out broken home buttons on iPhones, a simple repair that he’s currently unable to do for certain models because only Apple Authorized Service Providers have the diagnostic software needed to render those models’ replacement home buttons functional. Similarly, it would prevent home appliance manufacturers from withholding the tools or codes needed to restart a device like a refrigerator after it’s been fixed.
While 23 other states considered similar laws this year, Massachusetts is considered a promising venue for right-to-repair legislation because there’s precedent. Back in 2012, the state passed a landmark right-to-repair bill focused on the automotive industry, clearing the way for a national agreement between independent mechanics and manufacturers.
Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the grassroots trade organization The Repair Association, and other advocates are hoping to see something similar happen with electronics repair.
“It could be one and done,” Gordon-Byrne says. “If manufacturers are required to sell parts, tools, and release schematics in Missouri” — or any other state — “they’re going to have a heck of a time telling people they can’t drive over the border and buy them.”
Manufacturers have lobbied fiercely against these bills. Ostensibly, they’re concerned over cybersecurity and the safety of their customers, claiming that unauthorized repairs could cause devices to malfunction in dangerous ways. But experts outside these companies have argued a more open repair market will actually improve cybersecurity, and the passage of auto right-to-repair has not led to any systemic safety problems. Regardless, industry lobbyists brought up both safety and security at last week’s hearing, in addition to arguing that increased access to repair could result in more air pollution and undermine energy efficiency initiatives. (Yes, really.)
Gordon-Byrne is optimistic that if the Massachusetts bill were brought to the floor, it could muster enough votes to pass. So is Wiens of iFixit. “I would say this calendar year, this is the best chance we have,” he said.
The big question is whether legislators will actually decide the bill is high enough priority to move it out of committee.
“We are competing with hundreds, maybe a thousand other bills … in any given year,” Gordon-Byrne says. “To rise to become the most important thing takes a while.”
Passing a right-to-repair bill would be a clear victory for independent fixers. But Josh Lepawsky, a geographer at Memorial University of Newfoundland, cautions that the planetary benefits are somewhat murky. Perhaps in a world where it’s easier to swap our phone batteries, we’ll wind up spending the money we save on upgrades purchasing smartwatches, home assistants, and all sorts of other electronic devices — a rebound effect called Jevon’s paradox that economists have seen play out many times before.
“There has to be an aggregate reduction in the throughput of energy and materials for there to be overall savings” in terms of resource consumption, carbon emissions, or any other environmental metric, Lepawsky says. “And whether that will automatically happen from repair being made [more accessible] I think is a totally open question.”
What’s more, Lepawsky says, it’s important to distinguish between the right to repair a device and the actual repairability of that device. When the batteries inside your brand-new $249 Apple AirPods Pro inevitably die, you’re out of luck. You can’t swap them out because they’re glued in place. And while that’s a particularly egregious example of unsustainable design, it’s not an isolated one: With few green electronics standards for repairability and disassembly, companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft have spent years designing devices that are thinner, sleeker, and more difficult to take apart.
“Once you’re at the point of doing repair, the brand manufacturer has gifted you with a certain design and repair template which you can nudge in a few directions,” Lepawsky says. “But you don’t have an infinite range of maneuver there.”
And if you’re unable to fix a device because of how it’s built, it’s a pretty good bet that electronics recyclers are going to have trouble disassembling it and extracting the valuable parts. It might not even be worth their while to bother. So making tech devices easier to repair would make them easier to recycle, too.
For Nathan Proctor, who leads the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s right to repair campaign, leveling the playing field for independent repair shops is a first step toward the goal of “rebuild[ing] an expectation of repairability.” If we can start to change what consumers expect of their electronic devices, the hope is that will ultimately change the way manufacturers design them.
“When you take your phone to a repair shop, they might point out the design choices that affect the price of repairs, whereas the manufacturer won’t do that,” Proctor says. “We must restore that expectation that things should be fixable, so that when they aren’t, people notice.”