- When an iPhone breaks, most people buy a new one because repairs are too expensive and difficult.
- During the pandemic, hospitals couldn't fix broken ventilators because they didn't have "authorized" repair technicians.
- As electronic waste piles in the streets, we need the right to repair our devices and to invest in technology that lasts.
- Katya Schwenk is a journalist writing about tech and surveillance and a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider's business page.
For years, Apple has insisted that your iPhone is good for the planet.
"We build them with the environment in mind," the company proclaims, and it builds the ubiquitous devices "to last." Gone are the days when the phones' glass was laced with mercury and arsenic. Now, the iPhone is green.
But the truth is that smartphones have a serious environmental toll. iPhones, like most smartphones, run on lithium ion batteries - manufactured with precious metals mined from Tibetan grasslands, the salt flats of Chile, and, soon, the Salton Sea in California. The waste from these mines is poisonous and leaches into surrounding communities. Lithium extraction requires enormous quantities of water and eats up local water supply.
And every day, instead of repairing their broken phones, consumers discard hundreds of thousands of smartphones, which then join the billions of tons of electronic waste that is flowing into landfills, into the ocean, and into city streets.
The old smartphones are replaced with more, newer smartphones, adding to the tech industry's carbon footprint. Apple's own environmental reports, in fact, show that lifetime carbon emissions of newer iPhone models are higher than older models, and are growing - directly contradicting their claims of a greener phone. For the iPhone 12, more than 80% of those emissions occurred during production. The demand for lithium and copper is, subsequently, on the rise. Our single-use model for technology is unsustainable.
The material that I find most representative of the problem at hand is not a precious metal, however. It is glue. Consumer tech manufacturers have, gradually, replaced screws with adhesives - which make your smartphone more intimidating to repair.
In the newest iPhone models, for example, glue ensures that the glass on the back of the devices is nearly impossible to replace - although one resourceful repair shop suggests that a laser machine could do the job. Not only are our smartphones full of destructive rare earth metals, they are glued together, full of speciality screws that make them difficult to open, and hostile software that flashes warnings when parts are replaced.
These features have ensured that tech is difficult to fix, for both independent repair shops and DIY tinkerers. They have also kept the tech industry booming. Consumers, meanwhile, are forced to give money to the manufacturer for repairs - or, more often, to just buy a new phone. Our irreparable tech is thus heading to the landfill at a rapid pace. To fight against mass waste, consumers not only need the right to repair our devices - we need to value technology that lasts.
The 'right to repair' movement
It was last spring, at the onset of the pandemic, that the question of repairability - often a more niche movement - began to take on a new urgency. As the pandemic filled emergency rooms, ventilators began to break. And hospitals were not able to fix them: They were constrained by the whims of medical tech manufacturers, which frequently keep repair instructions from the public, forcing hospitals to consult "authorized" repair technicians, even when on-site staff were qualified to do so.
The needlessly broken ventilator was a powerful image. Biomedical technicians were forced to hack into ventilators, amounting to, as Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote in Slate, "denying sick people access to life-saving equipment over a repair manual." It became a metaphor for the ways that consumers are being held hostage by technology companies, all for the sake of revenue.
Still, the fight for consumers - and independent repair shops - to be able to fix their own goods has a longer history. In the early 2010s, the automobile industry lobbied hard against proposed legislation to ensure that independent repair shops had access to the same repair information as dealers. It was a lone Massachusetts law that forced the industry to craft nationwide standards around repair rights - although car manufacturers are still lobbying against them. This was the first major victory of "Right to Repair" - a longstanding movement to give consumers the right to repair their own devices. In most other industries, however, there is no such agreement.
Take the agricultural sector, for instance. For years, farmers have warred with John Deere, a tractor and machinery manufacturer, to allow them to fix their equipment without heading to the dealer. John Deere has been unrelenting. Three years after the company had promised to provide tools and parts to independent shops, farmers still have no access to those resources.
Part of the issue with John Deere is that tractors, like cars, are increasingly computerized - requiring the work of software engineers, instead of mechanics, when problems emerge. Like John Deere's tractors, our cars, our tools, and our household appliances, too, are becoming more alien - wired with impenetrable software that consumers are prevented from fixing.
The use of software might make the machines more modern, but it also renders them more controllable by the manufacturer. John Deere argues that relinquishing control of its software would pose a security risk: "It's a 40,000-pound tractor going down the road at 20 miles an hour," CTO Jahmy Hindman told Verge. "Do you really want to expose untested, unplanned, unknown introductions of software into a product like that?" It's a fragile argument, however: What's the difference between making a software modification and installing an engine modification?
Change on the horizon
Last month, President Biden signed an executive order that announced his support for better consumer protections for repairs, directing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to consider new enforcement on the issue. And a few weeks ago, the FTC voted unanimously to better enforce laws around the right to repair. It was, as Nathan Proctor, a repair advocate with the US Public Interest Research Group, wrote: "a big day for the right to fix our stuff." It was a big day, too, for the fight for a greener economy.
This rhetorical support is, of course, not yet translated into actual enforcement. The US's formidable intellectual property regime poses a real threat to a robust legal right to repair. And, for years, manufacturers have gotten away with crafting illegal warranties that prevented consumers from seeking out third-parties repairs. The FTC itself concluded, in a report issued earlier this year, that there were "serious concerns" around manufacturers' compliance with such laws. But the urgency is justified. Unnecessary waste from electronics is a major threat to the environment - the "fastest-growing waste stream in the world," according to the UN - and is aggravating the encroaching climate catastrophe.
The FTC's announcement signals an important first step: enforcing laws like the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which already gives consumers the right to third-party repairs without breaking a warranty. But much more is needed to reduce the extraordinary waste produced by flimsy, single-use consumer tech.
Biden's executive order, and the FTC's actions, focus on competition in the marketplace - on cutting back the aftermarket monopolies that manufacturers have created by limiting repairs on their products. But they fail to address the underlying culture that the tech industry has created: As one study found, consumers are often eager to upgrade their iPhones, even if nothing is wrong with them, buying into the wasteful aesthetics marketed by Apple and other companies. To fight back against the ever-growing pile of e-waste, consumers must, instead, want their technology to last.