Right to Repair

2012: The Year of the Fixer

Photo by Eric Craig Doster

Anyone who still doubts that people care about sustainable electronics has not been paying attention this year. We are officially dubbing 2012 as “the year of the fixer”: More and more people are breaking out their screwdrivers, and the headlines have been full of repair stories. The iPhone 5 is the most repairable iPhone ever. There are fewer toxic chemicals in new cell phones than ever before. A draft of a new green cell phone standard, UL 110, requires that manufacturers secure cases with screws rather than glues. And Sprint announced that all of their phones will meet this standard—they will be openable, modular, and repairable.

There was so much going on this year that we missed some exciting repair news. So, here are five more important repair stories that fell through our cracks:

1. Massachusetts Defends Their Right to Repair

Massachusetts voters passed a statewide measure in November asserting the freedom to service their cars wherever they want—at the dealership, at an independent service shop, or in their own driveways. The Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act makes it illegal for any manufacturer to sell or lease a new car without allowing the owner access to the same diagnostic and repair information that manufacturers have. Independent repair technicians—who directly compete with major dealerships for business—must also be given access to the service and repair documents.

Rallying behind the cry of “it’s your car, you paid for it, you should get it fixed where you want,” voters approved the ballot measure by a whopping 86%. The Massachusetts Right to Repair Committee called the vote an “historic victory for car owners”—and indeed the bill is the first of its kind passed in the United States. Perhaps the law will pave the road for more sweeping national repair reform.

2. First E-waste Processing Plant in East Africa

This month, HP opened the first e-waste processing plant in East Africa. Technology has moved quickly into the developing world—thanks largely to cell phone usage, Africa has had one of the highest internet usage growth rates in the world over the last decade. When those devices break, they need to be disposed of somehow. Informal e-waste processing can be dangerous: Practices such as open burning and dissolving circuit boards in acid baths damage workers’ health. So it is vital that African nations develop safer ways to process e-waste.

This plant is a triple win: It’s a win for the environment. It’s a win for HP, which will make profit off the recycled e-waste. And it’s a win for the local community, which gets an influx of skilled, permanent jobs.

3. German Federal Environmental Agency Speaks out Against Sealed Batteries

People in high places are beginning to recognize that difficult-to-replace electronics batteries are an environmental nightmare. President of the German Federal Environmental Agency, Jochen Flasbarth, proposed banning devices with glued down-batteries like the iPad and the MacBook Retina. “That the battery component cannot be easily replaced is grotesque,” he said in an interview with Frankfurter Rundschau, “They must prohibit it.”

Hear, hear, Mr. Flasbarth. Batteries are a consumable: Like the tires on your car, they will wear out with normal use. An iPhone battery, for example, is rated for just 400 charge cycles—that is, 400 times completely discharging and fully recharging. For most people, this means the battery will last about two years. So when manufacturers seal a battery into a device with industrial-strength adhesive, or make it inaccessible behind other components, they are essentially building in a death clock. If the device dies when the battery does, it’s a waste of all the other longer-lasting components. Germany hasn’t (yet) banned sealed batteries, but we approve the sentiment.

Right to Repair at Makerspace Urbana help desk

4. Have a Coffee; Fix Your Toaster

Repair isn’t just happening in the garage anymore. At last count, 40 community repair cafés were up and running in the Netherlands alone. Café participants bring their broken items, pool their knowledge and tools, and get the product back to working condition again.

And what starts in the Netherlands doesn’t stay in the Netherlands. Spurred on by the resurgent interest in tinkering, small repair cafés have started popping up all over the world. US repair collectives have picked up steam this year, too: We’ve chatted with repair gurus from Fixers Collective in New York, Fixit Clinic in the Bay Area, the West Seattle Fixers Collective, and the Makerspace Urbana Help Desk.

It’s like we’ve always said: Repair builds community.

5. Ellen MacArthur Foundation Publishes Towards the Circular Economy

All roads eventually lead to the dump in a linear consumption model built on taking natural resources, manufacturing objects, and disposing of waste. But the earth is a closed system. We cannot simply throw our trash “away.” Away doesn’t exist. It never has.

Recently, a new replacement model has gained public support and momentum. Inspired by nature, the “circular economy” model imagines a consumption cycle that practically eliminates waste. Instead of moving from cradle to grave, manufactured goods follow a path from cradle to cradle. Waste becomes a resource. In February, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) published a groundbreaking report on the environmental and economic benefits of a circular economy. As it turns out, a circular economy—focused on reuse and remanufacturing—is also a prosperous economy. The EMF estimates that the EU manufacturing sector could realise net materials cost savings worth up to $630 billion per annum towards 2025.

Of course, there is still much work to be done. We worry about the trend toward sealed devices, and manufacturers like Toshiba continue to take all their repair manuals out of consumers’ hands. But repair advocates have made a lot of progress this year—and broad public support for repair continues to make that progress possible. With every law passed and openable device released, we move one step closer to building a more repairable, more sustainable future.

Images from our Honda Accord Headlight repair guide and Brian Duggan of Makerspace Urbana.