Seceding to the Consumers’ Right to Repair electronics can not only reduce our mammoth E-waste generation but will also help stop the transboundary movement of hazardous materials, especially to the developing world.
Conscious consumers have been advocating for an increased share of recycling by Producers of Electric and Electronic Equipment (EEE) for several decades now.
India’s nascent E-waste policy introduced the concept of an Extended Producer’s Responsibility but it was only in the aftermath of thousands of expeditions having been commissioned worldwide to make recycling as cheap as possible to placate the profits of these said Producers. We have known the environmental benefits of recycling for ages, but it was not until we had double and triple checked its promised economic bounty, the Big Business companies dominating the production of your mobiles, laptops, computers, etc. finally agreed to be a part of it.
The Right to Repair debate has been gaining significant ground, especially after Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak threw his weight behind it. And the argument is simple- whether your laptop and by extension, you are a captive of its producing company or not.
Advocates of the movement demand that these producers also produce authentic spare parts of their products and make them available to all, so that we are able to get “our” devices repaired from independent repair shops as well.
Now, liberation from being hostage to only having to call company ABC to have their engineer visit my residence and then finally having to part with the device along with all its sensitive, personal information and then just praying for them to handle it with the care they have promised me on the poster sounds attractive enough, there is a much deeper and logical side to this argument and this is where recycling-refurbishing comes in.
Planned Obsolescence is the phenomenon where manufacturers deliberately slow the production of old devices and spare parts so that we are forced to buy newer gadgets and drive up sales (This by the way is no conspiracy theory, Apple was fined $130 Mn for artificially slowing down their manufacturing process.) Now take a minute to think how dangerous this is.
These devices are not made out of thin air, they require precious earth elements like- Copper, Chromium, Lithium, Gold, Silver, etc. and when we manufacture more of them, we take massive bites out of our very limited global donut, not to mention the associated unnecessary emissions that are a de facto part of this extraction-mining process.
Man plundering nature to make more money has been common throughout the various histories of various civilizations and this is just another example of that. The argument that these companies are giving as a counter is safety and environmental and exploitation of what they call their “intellectual property.”
Let’s look at both of them.
Now, who is the real owner of your mobile phone- you who has purchased it or its manufacturer? If what these companies are claiming is correct and I can’t even open my device without their permission to put in the very parts they manufactured, without losing warranty, then what exactly do I own?
The closest analogy that I can draw is of renting and buying an apartment. If I have rented an apartment, I need to ask the landlord for every little change I want to make, but if I own the apartment and it falls tomorrow, the builder is not going to start pinning all the blame on the red paint I had used while redecorating.
So surely, I am not the true owner of my mobile phone, and hence comes my second question and I started from the example of recycling for this very moment- then why when Mercury, Cesium and thousands of other toxic elements leak out in the landfills and reach our water or air are these said owners not sued for every penny they own?
The second argument of environmental concern although sounds ridiculous coming out of the biggest polluters in the world is valid and that’s where the solution lies. Your phone or laptop has a lot of chemicals that when dissembled without certain precautions can be fatal, so there is a need for these companies to release these protocols and precautions so that independent repair shops and skilled consumers too can follow them and keep themselves out of harm’s way.
Simply put, you cannot have it both ways. If the ownership of a gadget is of the company, then 100% of its disposal has to be managed by them (Right now our target for EPR is just 50% and there too compliance is highly questionable) and any mishaps or afflictions on the environment that has been done so far due to their callous handling should be billed straight to them.
Or, if it is mine then the recycling, refurbishing, or any replacement of any part should be left to my discretion (barring reasonable and obvious limitations).
Finally, let’s face the facts here, India has a tsunami of independent repair shops (Ever heard of Nehru Place?), we even illegally import a lot of E-waste and use it for spare parts in these shops, with big manufactures allowing our right to repair, we might even be an ability to transition to a more organized refurbishing set up. This will not only help the people living in dire states earning a meager income while exposing themselves to toxic chemicals every day have a better quality of life. This would also be our safety against the evil of planned obsolescence and reduce the mad exploitation of Earth’s very limited natural resources as well as bring down emissions significantly.