e-Waste is a Global Problem
The crisis of climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time. Politicians and policymakers around the world are looking for ways to protect the environment while transforming the energy economy in a way that won’t leave working-class folks behind.
E-waste is a global problem. As the consumption of technology ever increases, so does the number of broken phones, computers, power tools, and more that end up as waste. Much of the world’s e-waste gets shipped and dumped in West Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America. What augments the problem is “planned obsolescence” — a practice where tech manufacturers build products to have a fixed (often relatively short) lifespan and limit consumers’ ability to repair them. Big companies like Apple have been criticized for making some of the “least repairable” products. (We reached out to Apple PR and they didn’t get back in time for this article’s publication.)
As the consumption of technology ever increases, so does the number of broken phones, computers, power tools, and more that end up as waste. Much of the world’s e-waste gets shipped and dumped in West Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America. What augments the problem is “planned obsolescence” — a practice where tech manufacturers build products to have a fixed (often relatively short) lifespan and limit consumers’ ability to repair them. Big companies like Apple have been criticized for making some of the “least repairable” products. (We reached out to Apple PR and they didn’t get back in time for this article’s publication.)
Though Silicon Valley often asserts that the solution to ecological devastation is innovation, there are scholars, activists, entrepreneurs, and other shareholders who look toward renovation. One solution they offer is the Right to Repair.
Right to Repair is a movement surrounding the simple idea that people should be able to fix the technology they buy. In terms of law and policy, Right to Repair would codify consumers’ expectations that if they own a tech product then they have the right to repair and refurbish it, and it would require manufacturers to give straightforward and accessible instructions on how to repair their products. Nathan Proctor, the director of the Campaign for the Right to Repair at the United States Public Interest Research Group, wants to draw attention to this idea.
“When we think of the impact of our consumption, all the waste generated, the amount of energy, rare earth materials, and other building blocks that go into making our smartphones (for example), all over the world, people are taking a hard look at Right to Repair,” says Proctor.
Proctor works to pass legislation that will prevent companies from blocking consumers’ ability to fix their own electronics. He cites both Canada and the U.K. as places where Right to Repair is gaining steam. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have all supported the right for farmers to repair their farm equipment.
Aside from the direct economic benefits of being able to extend the lifespans of old electronics, UCLA department of information studies professor and director of the Digital Cultures Lab Ramesh Srinivasan thinks Right to Repair allows us to understand how technology is constructed in the broader social, economic, and political systems.
“One way of looking at it is [to say] ‘hey, this computer or phone is an object designed to die in a static fixed life cycle,” says Srinivasan. “But another is to look at it as a product based on an ideological vision that comes out Silicon Valley, made from minerals extracted from Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo, through labor practices in China.”
In “Rethinking Repair,” Cornell University professor Steven Jackson gives examples of how people around the world create informal economies by sifting through e-waste in landfills: from shipbreaking industries in Bangladesh to roadside cellphone repair in sub-Saharan Africa. Jackson calls for “repair-centered ethics,” to make visible the hidden labor of repairers, and to see repair as a part of innovation, not separate from it.
Though he sees Right to Repair as one tool in the toolbox and not as a panacea, Srinivasan views it as ultimately beneficial to the environment and the economy. People can generate new value out of the devices they buy, but also extend the use of minerals like coltan that can’t be put back in the earth. He also sees it as a way to challenge the uneven power dynamics between manufacturers and everyday users.
“If we continue on the path where the costs of innovation are socialized, but the benefits are privatized, that logic will continue to aid in economic collapse,” Srinivasan says. “The current model is great for tech companies, because it lines the pockets of these companies. But in the long term, it’s catastrophic.”
Embracing Right to Repair policy in the United States could be a positive step toward global environmental justice in developing and rural areas. But there is pushback against this type of legislation, particularly from manufacturers.
Michael Weinberg, the executive director of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy at the NYU School of Law, explained that the manufacturers use copyright laws to try to block users from being able to repair. An example of this would be limiting who can access and repair products that contain software. Companies like Apple, Samsung, and John Deere argue that unauthorized repair could ruin their products and render them unusable. But Weinberg argues that the companies’ justifications are likely more about control than care.
“The practical implication is that it forces people to come back to the manufacturer instead of doing it themselves or sending it to the mechanic down the road,” Weinberg says. “They want the benefit of selling goods to people, and by controlling the repair, they can continue to monetize.”
Companies are afraid that Right to Repair laws have the potential to put them at risk of intellectual property theft and piracy issues. They argue that if their software code were open to the public, scammers could steal and counterfeit it. But Proctor pushed back on the idea that repair jeopardizes device security.
“Having things that are repairable and secure are not incompatible in any way,” Proctor says. “We managed the risk of people being able to fix stuff for a long time, just like we allow people to fix their cars.”
Weinberg sees a push toward Right to Repair as a push for policy to match common sense.
“There is a broader movement to make the legal reality [of] Right to Repair match users’ expectations, which are: If you own it, you have the right to fix it, and companies can’t use copyright as a pretext to prevent users from accessing it,” Weinberg says.
Srinivasan argues that Right to Repair could appeal to people along different parts of the ideological spectrum — those looking to promote entrepreneurship and individual ownership to those fighting for economic and ecological justice. Proctor says that while we can’t avoid the unpopular need to systematically decrease the amount we consume, Right to Repair is an effective step forward.
“Right to Repair is about fixing our stuff, but it’s also about fixing our relationship with stuff,” Proctor says. “It’s a way for us to reimagine a system that works better for the people and for the planet.”
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