The momentum of ‘right to repair’ may pave the way for a more sustainable economy with less e waste
The right-to-repair movement scored a major victory last week when Apple officially opened its Self Service Repair online store. Announced in November of last year, the new program offers more than 200 parts and tools customers can use to repair the iPhone 12, iPhone 13, and third-generation iPhone SE.
So, rather than making an appointment and driving to Apple’s Genius Bar for repairs, you can now turn to a third party authorized to sell the famed brand’s parts and tools. Is the battery not charging? Does the display seem off? Is the camera not cooperating? You finally have a chance to fix it.
If the right to repair included all electronics, you would not need to rush out to buy a brand-new device any time your old — or, more likely, “old” — product acts up. And that’s what the right to repair advocates aim to accomplish.
How will the right to repair impact e waste?
This brings us to the original question: How will the right to repair impact e waste?
The short answer: The right to repair will likely have a significant impact on e waste. If more devices stay in use longer, fewer will need to be diverted to electronic recycling.
But we have a long way to go until that moment arrives. The global production of e waste currently shows no signs of slowing down. In 2021 alone, the world generated about 57 million tons of e waste with the U.S. contributing 7 to 8 million tons. By 2050, that figure is projected to nearly double to 111 million tons, according to a U.N. report.
The report notes, “While there is an opportunity to create sustainable production and consumption systems for electronics, this cannot be achieved by continuing the way we do business. In order to meet the growing demand, while also addressing the unexpected nature of technological evolution, a drastic change is needed in the electronics sector.”
Stopping the churn of upgrades
To advocates, the right to repair impact on e waste is that game changer. When coupled with improved e waste and plastics recycling, it has the potential to slow down the churn of product upgrades and create a more sustainable economy.
Like our own CEO Kristina Picciotti told the American Recycler in an article about the global e waste challenge, it’s a development the recycling industry should welcome. She noted that one problem with the “latest and greatest” technology is that electronics are rapidly evolving into devices that contain more plastic and fewer precious metals, high-end components, and base metals. In the end, that means less resale value.
“I believe it begins with manufacturers producing higher quality, longer lasting and repairable electronic devices. It may sound bad for the e waste industry, but it’s not. I would happily recycle a lesser volume of electronic devices that are of higher quality than to recycle larger amounts of cheap electronics.”
Current repair policies don’t work
Interestingly, American shoppers may not know that they, in theory, already have the right to repair whatever they buy. In practice, it does not work since manufacturers withhold the information or the parts to get the job done. They may also waive the warranty if a device is tampered with.
However, industry trade groups argue there’s good reason for the apprehension. When President Joe Biden last summer signed an executive order that pushes the Federal Trade Commission to make third-party product repair easier, TechNet issued a statement:
“Allowing unvetted third parties with access to sensitive diagnostic information, software, tools, and parts would jeopardize the safety of consumers’ computers, tablets, and devices and put them at risk for fraud and data theft.”
Big companies touting right to repair
In recent months, though, momentum is growing for the right to repair. Several large manufacturers are now touting their pro-repair actions, a sign that the wind may be turning.
- Microsoft and Valve are working with iFixit to support repair of their devices.
- Dell has announced a new “hyper-repairable” concept laptop.
- Google has announced a new Chromebook repair program.
At the same time, 19 states have filed or carried over Right to Repair bills. To cite a few examples:
- California: covers consumer devices
- Colorado: powered wheelchairs
- Nebraska: farm equipment
- Washington: personal electronics
- Oklahoma: all non-car devices
- Missouri: farm equipment and non-medical devices
As this list reveals, legislative action is moving beyond just consumer electronics to include everything from farm equipment to medical equipment in the repair efforts.
The latter became an urgent priority during the COVID-19 pandemic when the healthcare system was under pressure. In response, iFixit, for example, said it would release the “most comprehensive medical equipment service database in the world.” A move that will help techs repair everything from imaging equipment to EKG monitors to ventilators.
It’s good news
The right to repair impact on e waste brings hope of a more sustainable future. Combined with coast-to-coast, streamlined e waste recycling regulations, improved recycling techniques, and the use of more recycled materials, we can create a green, circular economy.