A federal Right to Repair Act could help the US avoid generating millions of tons of e-waste every year. By allowing consumers to repair their electronics, the Right to Repair Movement will directly contribute to sustainability efforts and reduce the amount of e-waste we produce, benefitting not only the environment but also consumers’ finances.
California Paves the Way
When your electronics break, your only viable option is to send the device to one of the repair shops licensed by the manufacturer, mainly because opening the device or purchasing spare parts and installing them at home has become nearly impossible.
All this is about to change. In October 2023, California – the most populous state in the US and the world’s fifth-largest economy – passed the landmark Right to Repair Act. This, many hope, will pave the way for other states to follow suit.
The new bill requires manufacturers to provide anyone with access to parts, documentation, and tools to repair their electronic devices. The law applies to electronic devices manufactured on and after July 1, 2021, and will take effect on July 1, 2024.
A recent consumer survey by Windows Report shows that 57% of respondents want the freedom to repair their devices at home, and 89% of consumers are concerned about discarded electronics or see it as a top priority.
The most interested in repairing their devices are laptop users (53%), followed by desktop PC users (41%). At the same time, 67% of respondents said they do not know that repairing their electronics is even a possibility. That translates directly into the same percentage of potential e-waste added to an already huge pile. The US alone generates 6.9 tonnes of e-waste annually.
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The Problem of E-Waste
The problem of e-waste has become much more severe in recent years because of the ever-growing amount of electronic devices ending up in landfills.
Batteries of portable electronics contain highly toxic and harmful chemicals, and improper handling may have hazardous consequences. Nevertheless, manufacturers made it almost impossible for consumers to detach batteries from portable devices such as mobile phones, laptops, and portable consoles.
According to 83% of people polled in the aforementioned survey, there should be a legal regulation to enforce the right to repair computers.
“Either vote for a law or impose taxes on computers that are not easily repaired,” an anonymous responder said.
In the race to release newer and better devices, companies are far likelier to design their products with planned obsolescence in mind to stimulate sales rather than encouraging consumers to upgrade or repair old devices.
More compact electronics translate into costly and lengthy repairs, so it comes as no surprise that most individuals discard their broken devices, contributing to a larger and larger pile of e-waste.
According to WEEE Forum, pro-capita e-waste this year is around 8 kilogrammes, totaling 61.3 million tonnes globally, and it is estimated to grow to up to 9 kilogrammes per capita by 2030. The tragic part is that only 17.4% of this waste is collected and recycled correctly.
E-waste accounts for 2-3% of annual global waste, but its composition is a lot more harmful than many other types. Mercury, cadmium, beryllium, and lead are just some of the toxic elements that contaminate the soil, water, and air, exposing us to serious health risks. Brominated flame retardants and synthetic ‘forever chemicals’ used in circuit boards and display screens persist in the environment and accumulate in the organisms of all living creatures, causing long-term effects.
More on the topic: ‘Forever Chemicals’ Contaminate Half of US Drinking Water
A large quantity of e-waste produced in the US is shipped overseas, mainly to developing Asian countries. While we tend to think that the problem goes away, harmful chemicals are released into the air we breathe, leading to respiratory diseases and other health issues among workers and nearby communities.
Creating more and more compact devices has become a problem not only for consumers but also for the small businesses that provide more affordable repair services. Newer and slimmer models include more and more glued or soldered components into more expensive ensembles that make it increasingly challenging to take products apart and replace them.
The Right to Repair Movement in the US
Within this grim landscape, it is not surprising that we have witnessed an increased dissatisfaction with such questionable practices in recent years. The Right to Repair movement is gaining traction, and Fair Repair bills promise to change how the industry operates.
As of today, Fair Repair bills are in place in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado, New York, and California, while 20 other states are working on the Right to Repair legislation. However, the laws have different focuses.
California’s law, for example, includes all consumer electronics but excludes gaming consoles. In Colorado, the bill is focused on farming equipment, while the Massachusetts bill targets mobile electronics such as cell phones and tablets.
In Washington, 30 repair shops sent an action letter to support the bill proposal, and urge the legislators to protect Washington communities and small businesses: “As businesses that work in electronics repair, we face significant barriers to fix many products – barriers imposed by the manufacturers. By blocking access to diagnostics, schematics, tools, and replacement parts, manufacturers undercut or even block independent repair. As a result, we are frequently turning away business that we could easily handle otherwise. This makes it harder for businesses like ours to thrive and serve our communities,” the action letter reads.
Repairing devices and prolonging their lives could also save US consumers $40 billion a year and help support the circular economy. Small businesses, such as local repair shops, can also support our recycling efforts by offering consumers more affordable ways to responsibly deal with their electronics.
The Right to Repair bill will eventually change the industry and how consumers look at electronics. However, there are still many hurdles along the way. For instance, the California bill excludes game consoles from the list of electronics based on the argument that allowing consumers to repair them at home might also facilitate jailbreaking. In comparison, New York’s 2022 Fair Repair Bill allows manufacturers to sell ensembles instead of the individual parts of the electronics, which makes the law almost useless. This matter is of nationwide importance and needs nationwide coherence, not state laws influenced by powerful manufacturing lobby groups.
Though the battle ahead is long, the Right to Repair Movement is a giant step forward in the fight against e-waste and as a way to safeguard small businesses that work in electronics repair. It is about saving the planet and shifting the decision power to consumers and their needs.
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