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  • Writer's pictureMatt Ferguson

The Right to Repair and Shocking Amounts of Waste

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

The consumer electronics industry is, and has always been, perched on the need to manufacture demand for more stuff. Why do you need an iPhone 14 when you just bought the iPhone 13 a year ago? Because Apple needs more money, and the billions electronics manufacturers spend on advertising every year speaks to this. But what of your old iPhone?

Apple, Best Buy, Staples, and others advertise electronic waste dropoff services at their stores, or by mail, with the promise that your discarded electronics will be responsibly dismantled and safely disposed of or reused, as appropriate. The reality of e-waste recycling, however, is not that much different than the reality of our plastics recycling programs: mostly, our crap is just shipped to a poor country and there's very little "responsibility" anywhere in the process.

As The Verge describes in their coverage of a large Northwestern e-waste company, Total Reclaim, e-waste handed off to domestic e-waste recyclers usually ends up being shipped across the ocean where it is destructively dismantled and few, if any, of a device's components or raw materials are reused. In the cases where raw material is reprocessed from an old device, that material is often extracted by burning.

Burning electronic substrates (PCBs), electrolytic capacitors, integrated circuits and other silicon-containing items releases dangerous chemicals into the air, soil, and groundwater, such as lead, cadmium, mercury, as well as other dioxins, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals. Such burning is also extremely detrimental to human and animal health. The routine exposure to heavy metal particulates alone is known to cause cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, in addition to neurodegenerative disorders and other central nervous system damage.

The Global South, increasingly, is where the developed world ends up sending its e-waste. These developing countries' governments, desperate for the monetary opportunity that processing e-waste provides, are too eager to accept these agreements with Western nations. Recycling companies in these same developing countries are not known for their strict safety measures (if they abide by any at all) and the workers at these recycling plants bear the true cost of the electronics industry's need for growth.

As an article by the University of Toronto describes, exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers in particular causes extremely serious negative outcomes for the human thyroid, as well as causing neurodevelopmental deficits, and various cancers. They write,

"PBDE emissions are highest in areas of China, India, Bangladesh and Western Africa, the researchers say. Emissions take place mostly while these products are being recycled, often done in small backyard workshops with minimal safety standards. Wania says some emissions happen during the manufacture and use of consumer goods, but the vast majority occur at the end of a product's life cycle. Emissions in China from 2000 to 2020 were approximately 300 tonnes, with about half of that linked to imported e-waste. By comparison, PBDE emissions in Europe during that time were only about 5.5 tonnes, with more than 100 tonnes offloaded to other parts of the world. Studies show that exposure to PBDEs are likely to cause serious negative health consequences in animals and humans. While there’s a global restriction on new products containing the chemicals, existing consumer products will be used and recycled over decades."

This is where Right to Repair comes in. The Right to Repair is a philosophical and legislative push to make repair parts for everything from laptops to farm tractors available to end users, in order to fix their devices. Right to Repair has gained more traction, ironically, in private industry than it has in our state and federal legislatures. In fact, a Right to Repair bill introduced in North Carolina in 2017 stalled in the House, with no progress made on ensuring customers have schematics and parts available to them to fix, rather than throw away, their electronics.

In May 2022, a similar bill concerning farmers' right to repair their farm equipment, was killed in the North Carolina Senate, thanks to corporate interests' lobbying to have 'right to repair' language removed from the bill.

State Sen. Brent Jackson (Republican) of Sampson County argued that more study was necessary to determine whether farmers actually needed the right to repair their own equipment and said, “That way we can go to the farmers where they live and breathe and work and see what they can do. And at the end of the day, we might change something or we might do nothing.” Senator Jackson's "wait and see" approach is made stranger when you consider he is a farmer. According to his campaign website:

Brent Jackson is Founder, President, and CEO of Jackson Farming Company, Inc. in Autryville, North Carolina. Under his leadership, the company maintains thousands of acres of farmland and the wide distribution of its produce to a variety of retailers.
Jackson has used his agriculture experience to protect North Carolina’s top industry as chair of the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and now as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

As a farmer with longstanding roots in agriculture and in state government, Sen. Jackson has a powerful conduit to those in positions of power for the advancement of Right to Repair.

Unhappily, some Republicans stand in the way of Right to Repair legislation because they have received generous donations from corporations like Deere & Co., producer of the stalwart John Deere line of tractors and heavy farm equipment, which have adamantly opposed empowering customers to fix their own equipment. These high-ranking Republicans have disguised their wariness of Right to Repair under fears of intellectual property theft, an argument which is flimsy at best.

The Federal Trade Commission notes, in its Report to Congress on Repair Restrictions, that “the assertion of IP rights does not appear to be a significant impediment to independent repair" and “considerations supporting repair . . . can nevertheless be accounted for, and woven into, intellectual property law and policymaking in a manner that preserves a space for a right to repair.”

Thanks to John Deere's intransigence on the issue, the company has been hit with multiple class-action lawsuits. Deere & Co alleges that Right to Repair is incompatible with the company's computer-controlled safety features, arguing that an end user repairing their own equipment constitutes a significant risk to that user's safety while operating the equipment.

Of course, closer examination reveals that Deere's argument is mostly hogwash, designed to protect Deere's closed software-hardware ecosystem and to keep profits going up, by locking farmers out of certain features via software kill switches. Deere even promised, on January 1st, 2021, that it would make schematics and parts available to farmers in order to stave off possible Right to Repair legislation being passed. In the nearly two years since, no federal Right to Repair bills have been signed into law and Deere has reneged on all of its promises.

As a consequence, farmers have begun to look for methods to "jailbreak" their tractors' operating systems, much in the same way that iPhone users downloaded and installed third-party software to unlock additional features within iOS. The latest jailbreak, from August 2022, provides root-level access to the software that runs the tractors' computers. Having root access in a Linux or UNIX-based operating system means that the user can modify the operating system as they wish, with no restrictions from higher up (in this case, Deere & Co.'s servers).

This may all sound absurd--that paying customers (in Deere's case, very well paying customers) have to resort to running third-party code from Ukraine in order to fix the equipment that they paid for. It is absurd, and it is a direct result of the sort of legislative atrophy that pervades the American political system at every level.

When all is said and done, Right to Repair affects all of us. Your car, your laptop, your phone, your thermostat, your iPad, your lawnmower are all just e-waste if corporations get their way and manage to block further legislative attempts to codify Right to Repair into law. Remember this when you write your Congressmen, and when you go to the polls. The future of ownership depends on it.

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1 Comment

Mya Glubpanny
Mya Glubpanny
Oct 12, 2022

Very informative. I wondered where all that stuff went.

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