Poised for breakthrough

Features - Electronics Recycling & Reuse

Right to repair legislation has been introduced in 27 states in 2021.

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For decades, manufacturers have been hindering repair by designing devices that are difficult to fix, installing software locks or denying access to critical materials, such as repair documentation or firmware.

When only the manufacturer has the resources required to fix something, it can prevent recyclers from restoring and refurbishing old equipment, degrading the value of postuse electronics and increasing the time necessary for staff to salvage usable equipment from the stream of end-of-life electronics. That increases waste and undermines the e-scrap recycling model.

Of course, it’s not only electronics recyclers and refurbishers who have to deal with increasingly restricted repair. It’s farmers who can’t fix their tractors, hospitals that are locked out of their ventilators, consumers pushed into buying unnecessary upgrades and the environment, which is being affected by rapidly increasing mining and manufacturing activity.

Together, a combination of recyclers, educators, tinkerers, environmental advocates, farmers and consumer groups are championing right to repair reforms to require access to critical repair materials, including spare parts, documentation, firmware, special tools and diagnostic software. With the introduction of HB 1152 in Pennsylvania in April, 27 states across the country have considered right to repair legislation so far in 2021. In some states, the bills target farm or medical equipment, while they apply broadly in other states.

The pandemic makes the case for action

When most Americans began sheltering in place to stay safe at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people switched to remote working and learning. But for many of those without internet access, devices or digital literacy, this sudden shift had adverse consequences for their health and education.

On the health front, many Americans lacking basic technological resources have been unable to work remotely and have had to risk going into work while COVID-19 has rampaged across the country since last March. And as our focus has shifted since December to vaccination, the digital divide has meant that senior citizens and others face technological barriers in their attempts to register for appointments to get their shots.

When it comes to education, millions of students had no choice but to hope their schools could provide computers for the 2020-2021 school year. However, supply shortages meant U.S. school districts received 5 million fewer laptops than their students needed. No laptop meant no school for many students.

“We have a majority of what we need,” says Amanda LaGrange, CEO of Tech Dump, an electronics recycling company based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. She says businesses and households often retire outdated computers to the back of their closets when they can easily be fixed and updated. In any case, if a PC or laptop is unredeemable, refurbishers and recyclers can extract the parts they need to make repairs on other devices.

LaGrange has a point. Given that Americans bought 48 million laptops and 17 million desktops in 2019, and that the combined production of laptops, desktops and tablets globally has been fairly steady for the last 10 years, more than enough devices are available, especially if you add in tablets. However, manufacturer-imposed barriers to repair thwart the secondhand market for electronics.

“Currently, we have to reverse engineer every new type of device that we receive,” Hilary Shohoney, executive director of the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Free Geek told an Oregon state house committee. “Through this process, we often break devices in order to understand them. It’s not logical, it’s unnecessarily challenging and it’s simply a waste of resources.”

Robin Ingenthron, founder of Good Point Recycling, Middlebury, Vermont, has said that manufacturers create obstacles with the devices themselves to dissuade the reuse of tech products. “Technology may auto-lock (“brick”) devices sold to secondhand and third-hand consumers,” Ingenthron said at an event about reusing products that was hosted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

While the production and shipment of new computers is, under normal circumstances, streamlined, the same cannot be said for how we treat reuse and refurbishment of these devices.

Undercut by repair restrictions

Sam Mencimer, a 17-year-old repair shop owner, described a similar situation during a Maryland right to repair bill hearing. “My job is to fix [school-issued Chromebooks] because Acer will not sell replacement parts for them,” he said at the hearing, describing having to reverse engineer the laptops to find the many ways in which elementary school kids could have broken them.

But Mencimer couldn’t fix the laptops because Google would not allow him to access the software needed to reprogram a chip on the motherboard. One tiny, unfixable piece resulted in the school district having to use its limited budget to purchase new Chromebooks for its students.

Like the school districts in Mencimer’s testimony, consumers who can’t get their devices repaired are steered toward big box stores or manufacturers to replace them. According to a report published by U.S. PIRG’s (Public Interest Research Group’s) Right to Repair campaign, this ongoing occurrence forces American households to spend an average of about $1,480 on new electronic products each year when they each could save approximately $330 annually through repair.

Meanwhile, the limited availability of secondhand and refurbished devices prevents Americans from accessing low-cost and durable electronics that suit their needs. Even when people find usable laptops in office information technology closets or their basements, it is not guaranteed that refurbishers, hamstrung by barriers to repair, can get them in working order.

Coalitions push bills from coast to coast

While some states have wrapped up their legislative seasons, many efforts are still active: California’s SB 605, which focuses on medical devices; Delaware’s HB22; Florida’s SB 374 and HB 0511, which focus on farm equipment; Illinois’ HB 3061; Massachusetts’ HB 341 and SB 166; Minnesota’s HF 1156 and SF 2080; Nebraska’s LB543, which is focused on farm equipment; New Jersey’s AB 1482; New York’s S4104 and A7006; Pennsylvania’s HB 1152; Texas’ HB 3198; and Vermont’s H.58 and S.67, which focus on farm equipment.

Bills in 15 other states have stalled or failed to pass: Arkansas, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Washington.

As more U.S. states investigate right to repair, other parts of the world also are investigating and addressing these topics. The European Union passed right to repair rules for appliances, while the Australian government is recommending new right to repair rules.

FTC report calls for action

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a report in May on manufacturers’ use of restrictive repair tactics that have kept consumers from repairing their own products. The report thoroughly reviewed comments from right to repair advocates and from manufacturers that argued for repair restrictions. It also reviewed regulatory tools at the FTC and pending right to repair reforms in the states, which could be used to address those restrictions.

The FTC report clearly lays out that repair restrictions are harming consumers, concluding that “there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”

“We see and feel the momentum building. Legislation is moving not just in the United States, but also around the globe,” Gay Gordon-Byrne said in March. Gordon-Byrne is executive director of New River, New York-based Repair.org, which represents recyclers, refurbishers and independent repair businesses. “The time for manufacturers to get on the right side of their customers—and history—is now,” she said.

“Right to repair is unstoppable and coming to a state near you,” Kerry Maeve Sheehan, U.S. policy lead for iFixit, the world’s biggest online repair community, said in March. “Lawmakers everywhere are seeing that right to repair is common sense: You buy a product, you own it and you should be able to fix it. With 27 states considering right to repair legislation in the U.S., it’s only a matter of time before right to repair is the law of the land.”

This isn’t going away

When the manufacturer or its “authorized” service providers are the only options to repair items, costs are higher for consumers, recycling is undermined and the whole system is fragile. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down big box stores, people didn’t have options to fix their devices, and their frustration helped to fuel the energy behind our efforts this year. This issue isn’t going away until lawmakers deliver for consumers.

Nathan Proctor lives in the Boston area, where he directs U.S. PIRG’s campaign on right to repair. Contact him at nathan.proctor@publicinterestnetwork.org.