Designed for the dump?
Much effort has been made in recent years to address the growing problem of e-waste. NGOs and electronics manufacturers frequently promote the idea of a ‘circular economy’, whereby the value of components and raw materials is retained in a ‘closed-loop’ system of production.
Legislators have also made efforts to tackle the problem through Extended Producer Responsibility laws such as the EU’s WEEE Directive, which aim to make producers responsible for the products after use through takeback schemes or through additional charges added to the market price.
And yet, despite these efforts, e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and is on course to double by 2050 at the current rate. In many ways, the problem is inherent to the design and consumption of technological products.
The relentless demand for exciting new tech means that new and more advanced devices are released in rapid cycles – for example, in Western countries, we tend to use a smartphone for around 24 months before upgrading (although recent reports suggest the trend may be starting to reverse).
The right to repair
Defective devices are often simpler to replace than to repair, with smartphone, laptop and tablet designs increasingly moving towards sealed units, where even the battery is not replaceable by the average user. This is often referred to as built-in or planned obsolesence.
In 2018, Apple and Samsung were fined £10 million and £5 million respectively by the Italian authorities for ‘planned obsolescence’ built into their smartphones. According to Italy’s competition watchdog, operating system updates, which users were encouraged to accept, “caused serious malfunctions and significantly reduced performance, thus accelerating phones’ substitution”.
Companies have also been found to use techniques such as glueing essential parts of a phone or tablet together so, if the device was opened up, the parts would break; and copywriting schematics and manuals to keep them out of the public domain.
In the US, so-called right to repair legislation, intended to allow consumers to repair their own devices more easily, has been repeatedly lobbied against by tech companies. In April 2019, a right to repair bill was put forward in California, only to be prematurely pulled following lobbying by Apple and CompTIA, a trade organisation representing big tech companies.
It is reported that the lobbyist met directly with members of California's State Assembly’s Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, which was considering the bill, arguing that consumers might be at risk of hurting themselves if encouraged to open up their phones and attempt repairs themselves.
The sponsor pulled the bill following this corporate intervention, claiming that “manufacturers had sown enough doubt with vague and unbacked claims of privacy and security concerns”.
There are, of course, simple ways that manufacturers could help. The concept behind a modular phone is that the user can easily replace the different parts within. So, if the camera or another part breaks, you can order another one and fit it yourself with no need to buy a whole new phone or fork out large amounts of money on repairs.
Several years ago, Google began dipping its toes into the relatively uncharted water of modular phones with its Project Ara, but scrapped the project in 2016, reportedly as part of a broader move by the company to streamline its hardware products. Whether a modular phone will be made by one of the major firms is difficult to say.
On the other hand, the Fairphone website listed over 30 parts that users could purchase in order to replace various parts of its Fairphone, from the display screen to the daughterboard.
If you search the websites of most of the major mobile phone brands, such as Apple or Samsung, you will find little more on offer to add to your phone than a protective cover. Modular phones have great potential to improve the sustainability of the electronics sector, but it is in the interests of profit-hungry companies to keep us buying new products.