Right to Repair Revisited

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

In December of 2021, Cassidy Mullennix from Zero Waste Humboldt wrote an article in EcoNews explaining the Right to Repair movement and the benefits it would provide to the environment and consumers. Since that article, progress has been made in California to further the movement and implement Right to Repair legislation, which seeks to make fixing electronics easier and more accessible. As two Right to Repair bills — SB-244 and SB-271 — are currently making their way through the California State Assembly, it is worth revisiting why this legislation matters and why it is important to fight the concept of planned obsolescence in all forms of technology. 

Public ideas about the lifespan of everyday electronics have been largely influenced by technology companies and the legislation, or lack thereof, that is supposed to regulate the industry. This becomes obvious when comparing peoples’ mindsets about cars to their other electronics. Cars are generally an investment for most people, regardless of the make and model. When they break, most people take them to a mechanic so they can fix the issue. Regardless of the type of car, mechanics everywhere have the information they need to fix the car and would generally provide similar, if not the same, service everywhere regardless of location or specialty. This is not by accident, as there have been Right to Repair laws for cars for many years. However, when someone spills a glass of water on their smartphone, the usual assumption is that it is time for a new device. These reactions are not accidental, but instead are a result of legislation that has ensured consumers have more rights when it comes to fixing cars than when it comes to other electronics.

With no legislation existing for other electronics, consumers have been conditioned to think they couldn’t possibly fix their complicated and mysterious everyday technology, and if they tried they might potentially do more harm than good. This belief is supported by the fact that most gadgets come tightly sealed with glue to prevent home repairs, with Apple even having invented its own screw to make their devices harder to access. Oftentimes, when these devices are brought into the retailers to be fixed, the cost usually makes it more worthwhile to buy something new rather than invest in something old that will degrade sooner or later. This is because big tech companies currently only provide service tools to a network of officially approved partners, who usually have to follow strict rules and use genuine parts bought directly from the manufacturer. The costs for fixing electronics with these official partners is almost always  higher than repairs would be when done by unauthorized repair centers.

Over the past five years, the push to fight for these rights has been increasing. In May of this year, the California state Senate passed Sen. Susan Eggman’s (Stockton) Right to Repair Act (SB-244) with a bipartisan vote of 38-0. 

This bill has now moved to the California State Assembly, making it the furthest any Right to Repair legislation has progressed in the state despite intense efforts from industry lobbyists. According to a media release from California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), “The bill would significantly expand consumers’ and independent repair shops’ access to the necessary parts, tools and service information required for repairing consumer electronics and appliances.” It is expected to save Californian households roughly $5 billion per year by bringing more competition from unofficial repair centers to broaden consumer choice and drive costs down. 

While the right to repair smartphones and household electronics is important, the  ability to repair necessary medical equipment such as powered wheelchairs is vital. Powered Wheelchairs: Repair Act (SB-271), which has also been moved to the State Assembly, would require original manufacturers of powered wheelchairs to provide information and tools that would allow an owner or independent repair provider to inspect and fix them as necessary. This is significant because 93 percent of respondents to a CALPIRG survey who are powered wheelchair users indicated that they had to get their wheelchair fixed in the last year, some being forced to wait as long as 7 weeks for the repair to be completed. 

The inconvenience and potential harm that is incurred from having to pay exorbitant costs or wait unnecessarily for essential technology to be operational is not only detrimental for the people involved, it is also harmful for the environment.  According to CALPIRG, “Californians currently throw away 46,000 cell phones a day and 772,000 tons of electronic waste — which often contains toxic heavy metals — per year.” Kyle Wiens is the founder and C.E.O. of iFixit, a free community resources website that provides repair information for all kinds of electronics in addition to selling tools and parts. “The environmental impact of manufacturing the things that we have is significant,” said Wiens in an interview with the New York Times. “The phone that’s in your pocket, which weighs like eight ounces, took over 250 pounds of raw material dug out of the ground to make. If every American were to use their phone just a year longer, it would be the equivalent of taking 700,000 cars off the road. And so to have a world that is disposable — like, you’re talking about literal mountains dug out of the ground every year just to keep up with our gadget habit.” 

Breaking the gadget habit requires a combination of better legislation and a collective paradigm shift. Hopefully, these bills are just the beginning of a movement towards a culture of long-lasting items made of responsible sourced materials and empowered consumers who can fix their things.