The information technology asset disposition (ITAD) industry is growing, just like the e-scrap it seeks to refurbish or recycle. More than 53.6 million tons of e-scrap were generated internationally in 2019 and 17.4 percent of that was recycled, according to the United Nations.
However, those numbers could change in the future as the right-to-repair movement, which encourages consumers to fix their own devices, continues to grow in the United States. The movement has become so popular that state and federal lawmakers and some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) support it.
“People should have access to the tools, information and parts needed to repair their devices,” says Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, an ITAD support company for people looking to repair their own devices. “Back in the day, that used to be normal. If you bought a television, you could go to a shop or repair it yourself."
As legislators and OEMs begin to support the movement, ITAD professionals weigh in on its impact on the industry.
A growing movement
Wiens has been working in the right-to-repair movement since founding the company in 2003. In 2014, he helped to introduce the first federal right-to-repair legislation, but the bill failed.
Last summer, the Biden administration issued an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission to draft regulations limiting OEMs’ ability to restrict independent repairs of their products. One of the directive’s primary goals is to make it easier and cheaper to repair items by limiting manufacturers from barring self-repairs or third-party repairs.
Recently, Apple and Microsoft have switched their positions and now support the movement. Both have begun offering parts, services and manuals on how to repair their devices.
About 25 states considered right-to-repair laws in 2021. Recently, New York approved the Digital Fair Repair Act, which is right-to-repair legislation that makes it easier to fix electronics and farming equipment. However, the bill has yet to be approved and might not be approved until 2022.
Other states like Nevada, Texas and California also are considering right-to-repair legislation. Massachusetts is the only state with an official right-to-repair law for automobiles, which was approved in 2012.
“It’s a fundamental right to be able to repair your own devices,” says Eric Ingebretsen, the chief commercial officers of TES, an ITAD company with its global headquarters in Singapore. “It’s confusing to me why something like this is controversial.”
Most industry leaders like Ingebretsen and Craig Boswell, president of Hobi International, an ITAD company based in Batavia, Illinois, say that right-to-repair legislation will benefit the industry and the environment.
Boswell says if regulations are adopted, the industry would see more quality parts for repairs.
“This could allow us as independent repair facilities to have the same access to parts and the same ability to repair devices as an authorized service center or the OEM,” he says.
The industry could also see a rise in sales for refurbished devices and an expanded customer base seeking to extend the life of their electronics. As a result of the increased demand for refurbished items, the value of electronics could rise, Wiens says.
Right-to-repair legislation also could open the possibility of establishing a regulatory body that would set standards and guidelines for OEMs and repair companies. The body could unify the industry and bring about increased regulations for OEMs and what they need to supply to companies. It could also create infrastructure to ensure companies receive quality parts for repairs.
“Right now, companies need to create their own methods or standards to repair and resell devices,” Wiens says. “This could standardize measures to recycle and refurbish devices.”
Being able to extend the life of electronic devices will also help stem the increase in e-scrap, which accounts for 70 percent of all the toxic waste in American landfills, the World Economic Forum reports.
“This could have a tremendously positive impact on waste diversion,” Boswell says. “The more we distribute good quality repair and make it more available to consumers, the more effective a circular economy becomes.”
Wiens says that right to repair could also improve safety at material recovery facilities because it extends how long lithium-ion batteries could be used.
Ingebretsen says right-to-repair legislation could cause some issues. Smaller companies that recycle electronics will see a surge in end-of-life equipment. If unprepared, Ingebretsen says, it could cause a slowdown in services.
Another way right to repair could impact the industry is decreasing the value of parts on the secondary market. Ingebretsen says that since consumers will be able to extend the life of their equipment, electronics recyclers and refurbishers will get them later in their life cycle, increasing the odds that they’re obsolete or can no longer be used.
“The value does go down when harvesting parts from equipment the longer the device has been used,” Ingebretsen says. “Instead of getting memory that’s two years old, we’d get something that’s six years old instead.”
Some components that could lose value in the ITAD industry include graphics processing units, circuit boards and central processing units. However, Ingebretsen says he believes the market is agnostic, and prices could increase or decrease based on that.
Boswell says he believes that in some cases right to repair could be harmful to those who try to repair devices on their own, particularly since lithium-ion batteries power most electronic devices today. If improperly handled, the electronic device could catch fire or explode.
The timeline for right-to-repair legislation in the country is in flux. Wiens says the earliest some bills could be approved is March 2022, but it depends on how fast legislative bodies move. Wiens says the legislation will get introduced and passed depending on how many people voice their opinions on the right-to-repair movement.
“We’re looking to state-level legislation next year,” Wiens says. “We expect more than 20 different states to introduce bills next year, including Massachusetts and Florida.”
Some manufacturers don’t want legislation to be passed and would prefer that the industry handle repairs.
Boswell says a governmental path could add complexity and increased costs to companies in the ITAD industry. Instead, he says, he would propose that a self-regulatory body oversees how the industry operates.
“If we self-regulate, first of all, it would be nationwide,” Boswell says. “It would also be an industry-driven plan that would hopefully create parameters that are beneficial for both repair organizations and OEMs.”