Want to help the climate crisis? Don’t toss your old iPhone, fix it

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“The greenest smartphone is the one you already have,” said Cole Stratton, associate instructor at Indiana University Bloomington. “Smartphones seem so small and insignificant, so long as you haven’t studied supply chains and realized all that goes into making [them]You really have no idea how destructive these things are to the environment.”

Advocates for the right to repair, including Apple (AAPL) Co-founder Steve Wozniak is calling for laws that would require equipment manufacturers to issue tool, parts and repair manuals to allow consumers to get their products fixed by independent stores – or to do it themselves. for. If consumers can repair devices more easily, advocates say, they won’t need to replace them as frequently, reduce reliance on a resource-intensive production process and cut electronic waste. And it’s not just smartphones: from right-to-repair tablets to . can make it easier to fix everything Tractor.
Regulators are starting to take notice. US President Joe Biden recently directed the Federal Trade Commission to issue regulations to prevent manufacturers from placing restrictions that make it difficult to repair equipment. A week later, the FTC committed to investigate repair restrictions that may have been illegal under federal antitrust and consumer protection laws. European regulators, meanwhile, have been ahead in terms of repair rights, enforcing rules Earlier this year manufacturers of appliances such as washing machines and TV displays required third parties to provide parts and repair manuals for repairs.
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Right-to-repair advocates hope that recent regulatory attention will eventually be the momentum needed to push manufacturers to make repairs more widely accessible.

For climate, the push can’t come soon enough. World scientists concluded in August that it was “clear” that humans caused the climate crisis, and confirmed that widespread and irreversible changes had already occurred.

“If we can’t repair our stuff, the result is we throw too much away,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Union, a coalition fighting for the right to repair, told Granthshala. “We can no longer cope with the volume … we are swimming in products that we can no longer recycle.”


production problem

Experts say the supply chain for consumer electronics is global and complex, making it difficult to determine the full extent of its environmental impact.

But data that some companies make public can help paint the picture: for example, with the iPhone 13, 81% of the 64 kilograms of carbon emissions generated by a device comes from the production process alone, putting it on shelves. before moving, according to apple.
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On an individual scale, it’s not much; This equates to a 130-mile car journey from Los Angeles to San Diego. But multiply that by the millions of iPhones sold each year and it adds up fast. Then, apply a similar calculation to the countless other personal devices we use every day – laptops, desktops, tablets, smart watches, smart speakers, smart headphones, and more – and you get a sense of the carbon footprint of creating a new consumer. Is. Electronics.

“What happens before it reaches the device is very physically and energetically intense – that’s where the most greenhouse gas is emitted and where the most violent ecological change occurs,” Stratton said.

Some equipment manufacturers are working to increase the use of more sustainable materials in production. For example, Apple highlighted the recycled aluminum and other reused components used in its new devices at its recent product launch event, and Himachal Pradesh (HPQ) have talked about Using plastics that might otherwise end up in the ocean to make laptops.

According to Stratton, making consumer electronic devices requires the use of non-renewable, rare-earth metals that are resource-intensive and cannot be easily replaced with other components.

For example, europium and terbium are needed to make an HD screen; Zinc and tin help create touch-responsive surfaces; And lithium is used in batteries – just to name a few. Stratton said that even with advances in sustainable materials, not building a new device is still the most environmentally friendly option.

case for right to repair

Many large appliance manufacturers design products in a way that makes them difficult to repair without specialized tools and instructions, and have limited authorized repair shops where customers can make such repairs without compromising the warranty of their device. can reach. This has become increasingly true in recent years. Recent design updates from manufacturers include the use of glue instead of screws, which can make a tool smaller and lighter, but make it harder to take apart and put back together.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment for this story. During a Congressional Judiciary Committee hearing in 2019, Apple said it controlled the repair process over safety and reliability concerns. equipment manufacturer It also says repair restrictions help protect trade secrets and consumer privacy. But if consumers are forced to take their broken devices to licensed stores, restrictions could also benefit, said Gartner analyst Apo Markken. And it boosts sales if consumers have to replace their devices every few years.

“We’ve always had the right to repair our stuff because we paid for it, but we’ve lost it as a society,” Gordon-Byrne said.

Advocates say these restrictions take away the public’s right to do what they want with their products, and harm small repair businesses that can help preserve older equipment if they use the proper resources. can reach.

tech dump There is an electronics recycling facility in Minnesota that also repairs and resells used equipment through its store, Tech Discount. It processes 3 million to 4 million pounds of electronics each year, but can only fix and resell about 10% of the equipment it takes.

“We have fantastic technicians, and our team has figured out how to repair stuff without needing a repair manual from the manufacturer,” Tech Dump CEO Amanda LaGrange told Granthshala. “We can scale up a lot faster, we can do a lot more repairs, if we can access repair parts and have access to repair manuals.”

The link between e-waste and right-to-repair

The end of a product’s life cycle is also troubling for the environment. Manufacturers arguing against right-to-repair often state that recycling compensates for the need to replace equipment regularly. But experts say it is not that easy.

In 2016, Jim Puckett, founder and executive director of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based electronic West watchdog group, visited Hong Kong as part of a. global investigation Analysis of the last stage of the life of the equipment. Puckett and a team attempted to follow up with geospatial tracking devices that his organization and experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had installed in 200 computers, printers, televisions and other devices.

The team dropped them off at recycling and donation centers across the United States, saying they branded themselves as “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” and placed “tighter controls on exports” to developing countries.

When devices are disposed of, they often contribute to the growing e-waste problem overseas – an environmental and human rights issue.

But Puckett’s team found that about a third of the electronics they tracked ended up in places like Pakistan, Thailand, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Kenya, with 87% of the devices landed in Asia, particularly rural Hong Kong.

When Puckett and his team arrived at one of their first destinations in Hong Kong – which they found using GPS coordinates on device trackers – they said they found workers recklessly dismantling e-waste. Workers dismantle parts such as fluorescent lights used for flat-screen TVs or monitors; Once damaged, these devices release undetected mercury vapor that is toxic to public health and the environment.

“Chasing the end of life of electronics is really disappointing,” Puckett told Granthshala. “At the end of the whole cycle, real horror shows can happen.”

Even recyclers who process waste responsibly say that the process can be difficult, as consumer electronics can contain metals and toxic chemicals, and plastics that are expensive to process, according to LaGrange.

Repair advocates say both consumers and companies should take a comprehensive view of how we handle appliances from start to finish. Puckett said manufacturers should especially consider the damage devices and their components can cause to the environment.

“You have to take the toxicity out and design things from the get-go to last for a really long time,” Puckett said.

Mobile phones are dumped at Total Environmental Solutions' electronic waste recycling plant in Thailand in 2020.
The total mass of e-waste is decreasing as devices become smaller, a . According to 2020 Yale Study Published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology. But experts worry that with the impending “Internet of Things” revolution – where everything from watches to refrigerators are becoming consumer electronic devices – the amount of waste could be ticking back.

“The Internet of Things is terrible for everyone in my job, because we’re just seeing piles and piles of electronic waste,” said LaGrange, a right-to-repair advocate for nearly seven years.

“The fact that we’re still having this conversation is surprising,” she said. “What was encouraging about President Biden’s work … is that we have known that repairs have been important for years, they are for people, for our planet, for local jobs, for all things digital equity.” So there was something really encouraging about what’s being seen. But at the same time, there are still a lot of restrictions.”


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