Electronics manufacturers are introducing a range of consumer devices this week designed to make life cleaner, safer, more comfortable, more entertaining and even more environmentally friendly. But there’s one downside, say consumer advocates: Most products are difficult, if not impossible, to repair for most people, and likely only last a few years before they become e-waste.
“When you see a project as a demo, you don’t think about its lifecycle – you don’t think about what happens when the software updates are no longer available,” said Nathan Proctor, director of the Right to Repair Campaign at US PIRG , a research group interested in the public.
This practice not only destroys the planet, but also costs consumers a lot of money, according to PIRG. Americans waste $ 40 billion every year because they can’t fix products, the group found in a report last week. That’s roughly $ 330 per household per year. And the proliferation of Internet-connected “smart” devices is increasing the flow of hard-to-repair items, according to consumer advocates.
“It’s getting harder and harder for people to buy things that can be repaired. The problem is getting worse,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, a small lobby group that works for independent repair shops.
“Look at all that stuff that has chips in it,” she added. “My hair dryer has a chip. My toothbrush has a chip. Anything with a battery is difficult to fix unless the manufacturer makes it easy.”
Here are some tactics used to keep gadgets unfixed – and some things a savvy consumer might be able to do about it.
Glue, glue everywhere
Anyone who got their first smartphone in their infancy will likely remember a time when replacing the battery was as easy as peeling off the back cover. Today, if a consumer is even able to remove their device cover, they will most likely find components glued or soldered together, so easy replacement is a prospect for the repair business.
“Ten years ago you could slip the back of the phone and remove the battery,” said Olivia Webb, spokeswoman for iFixit, a parts retailer and online repair community. “Now they are glued with screws and battery pull-tabs, some of them are just glued in. People don’t want you to replace your battery – they want you to buy a new phone.”
This trend has spread beyond phones. Many computers now come with components glued together. So if a component fails, a consumer has to send the entire device in for repair.
“With laptops in particular, both the memory and the hard drive are now often integrated into the motherboard. They are no longer these different items that you could replace,” said Christine Datz-Romero, general manager of the Lower East Side Ecology Center in New York. The center ran an electronics repair program in New York for over a decade before pausing last year.
“You’re getting to a point where you can’t upgrade your technology anymore. And I think that’s another way of forcing people to buy a new machine instead of upgrading an old one.”
Even getting started with a device has become more difficult. In 2011, Apple pioneered the use of five-point screws (known as pentalobe screws) for iPhones that could not be opened with a standard screwdriver. (iFixit reverse engineered a screwdriver to unlock the device. It has been widely available ever since.) Disassembling the iPhone 12 requires four different types of screwdrivers, according to Hugh Jeffreys, a technologist and right-to-repair advocate.
Manufacturers often say that such measures are designed to protect the customer. For example, PRBA-The Rechargeable Battery Association cites a 2011 incident where an aircraft passenger’s smartphone caught fire on a flight, as an example of the dangers of doing a do-it-yourself repair.
“Even with the right tools, consumers and independent repair shops are likely to have limited knowledge of the sophisticated safety features of a battery and the product, which poses an inherent risk during repair and when using the product after repairs are complete,” the group said in one Letter to the Federal Trade Commission.
Did you do handicrafts? No guarantee for you!
Electronics records usually hammer home the point that no one other than the company that made the product can be trusted to repair it. And opening the wrong control panel will void your warranty.
Such warnings are illegal. Consumer advocates refer to the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975 and antitrust laws, which prohibit companies from making warranties conditional on the use of certain parts or repair services.
Even so, the practice is widespread. Two years ago, the Federal Trade Commission warned six companies against such language with no guarantee. (The recipients appear to be ASUSTeK, HTC, Hyundai, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony Computer Entertainment.) Many electronic devices have stickers warning consumers not to tinker.
There are more subtle ways to prevent repairs. A sticker may not contain an explicit warning, but it strategically covers a control panel that must be removed in order to repair a device.
“This creates a deterrent effect as lifting the tape damages it and it becomes an indicator of tampering. Consumers pause before removing it,” Peter Mui, founder of the Fixit Clinic, said in a letter to the FTC.
When a company insists that it violates a warranty because you’ve tried to fix a product, proponents say the intrepid consumer should keep trying and escalate to managers if necessary.
“Companies have stepped out when consumers know their rights. But the salesperson at the counter won’t know,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne of the Repair Association. Still, she said, it’s an upright fight. “It’s a difficult situation. We need enforcement that isn’t happening,” she said.
“Loss Leader” pricing
By repairing, rather than replacing, gadgets, owners usually save money. But sometimes new electronic products are so cheap that repairing them doesn’t make financial sense. This is the case with printers that are deliberately sold cheaply. The manufacturer then makes a healthy profit with ink or toner cartridges. (Shavers are sold on a similar model.)
“We learned the hard way that printers are basically not worth repairing,” said Datz-Romero of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. As she explained, the time it takes to fix the device and the price of a new cartridge cost the center more than the price they could ask for a refurbished printer. In fact, new printers are so cheap that consumers often do not need to replace the toner entirely.
“Often times, buying new laser cartridges for printers can be so expensive that people just throw away the printer and buy a new one instead of replacing the cartridge,” she said.
Squeeze repair shops
Most laptop or computer users are likely less inclined to tinker with a broken device than they are interested in being able to use it again without paying through the nose. However, when manufacturers limit the availability of spare parts or tools, it becomes more difficult for independent repairers to do so.
“What people think is a healthy cell phone repair company is actually very precarious,” said Gordon-Gay. “If it weren’t for businesses like that [iFixit]there would be no cell phone repair. “
Gordon-Gay points to cars as a counterpoint. In the US there are about 500,000 independent mechanics repairing 273 million vehicles, but there are only 140,000 independent consumer electronics technicians and their number is decreasing every year.
“We could significantly improve our jobs and our trade deficit if we stop letting manufacturers pretend they’re the only ones who can fix their products,” she said.
A “right to repair”?
Some manufacturers have received high praise for making their devices easy to repair. Dell and HP are providing repair manuals and replacement parts to consumers, according to iFixit’s Olivia Webb. Microsoft recently redesigned its Surface tablets to make it easier to repair.
Apple, often defamed by repair attorneys, says it has expanded its network of independent repairers to more than 700 locations across the United States.
Meanwhile, iFixit rates popular laptops, tablets, and smartphones based on how easy they are to fix. In France, device manufacturers must now assign such a rating to their own products. In the United States, “right to repair” invoices have been introduced in more than 30 states. Proponents hope this year one will become law.
“I don’t know how we as consumers got to the point where we felt it was normal and acceptable to spend a thousand dollars [on a smartphone] every two years and then again, “said Proctor.” Eventually, consumers will stand up. We spend way too much. “