When you repair something that you thought was ruined, it changes the way you think.
You realize that “broken” is a temporary state and that many things that can be restored are thrown away thoughtlessly.
Tech Dump’s mission is to train people who face significant barriers to employment how to refurbish and salvage unwanted electronics — giving an opportunity for both people and stuff to get a second chance to show their value. But that work faces barriers from those who profit from our “make, use, toss and make more” system.
The companies that make our electronics go to great lengths to make products difficult or impossible to fix. They use nonstandard tools to make repair more of a hassle and refuse to sell replacement parts to consumers or repair businesses.
As a result, Tech Dump estimates that only about 14 percent of all the donated electronics can be put back to use, because the manuals, diagnostics, tools, parts and firmware to reuse them are unavailable.
The barriers to repair are causing an increasing electronic waste problem. According to a recent study by Environment Minnesota, Minnesota throws out 6,500 cellphones every day, and 40 percent of the heavy metals in U.S. landfills come from discarded electronics.
The study also found surging interest in independent repair after recent battery issues with iPhones.
Right before the new year, Apple admitted to purposefully slowing down iPhones to preserve battery life on phones with worn-down batteries. While they offered a $29 battery replacement option, long waitlists formed, and people sought more repair options.
Independent repair businesses surveyed reported a 37 percent increase in weekly battery replacement service requests since Dec. 20, when Apple confirmed it was throttling phones with older batteries. That’s on top of people who went directly to Apple for their repairs, some of whom were told they might need to wait until April or later to get their batteries swapped. But Apple still will not make its batteries available to third parties or customers to fix their own phones.
Right now, Minnesota legislators are considering a bipartisan bill (SF 15) that would require electronics manufacturers to make replacement parts and tools needed for repairs available.
This bill would help Tech Dump repair more products, giving more people the chance to get back on their feet making low-cost electronics available to people who can’t always afford the latest gadgets. It would help create new opportunities for repair work in Minnesota, empower people to fix their own stuff and reduce the amount of waste going on the scrap heap.
It’s a bill that pushes back against a throwaway system, a system that writes something off as soon as it has a problem.
Just as you shouldn’t define the usefulness of a computer or phone by one broken part, we shouldn’t define people’s value by the worst day of their life.
It takes an eye for repair and a willingness to stand up to the system that pushes us to discard what still has value.
Tim Schaefer is director of Environment Minnesota. Amanda LaGrange is CEO of Tech Dump and Tech Discounts, a nonprofit providing job training and experience for adults facing barriers to employment.