If your smartphone breaks, what can you do? Can you go to a smartphone parts store, buy the piece you need, look up the official repair manual on the manufacturer’s website, and fix it like you would a car part?
The answer, of course, is that you generally cannot do this with electronic devices. If it’s already out of warranty, you’ll probably just have to toss it and buy a new one. This is leaving customers frustrated to no end as they discover how few options they have when expensive equipment breaks down.
Take the example of farm equipment. Farmers quickly learn how hopeless the situation is when the computers running their tractors break down as manufacturers will often claim that the farmers don’t own them in the first place and there is nothing they can do for them. Some are being told by the companies that the specialized software that runs these tractors is under the protection of patent and copyright laws, and giving farmers access to it would infringe on their intellectual property rights. Say what?
A lot of companies design their items to have a fairly limited useful lifespan because it is not cost effective to continue making parts for outdated devices. This is known as planned obsolescence, and it essentially forces consumers to buy new items when the old ones break.
Several states are mulling laws that would force companies to allow customers to fix broken electronics. Some of these proposed laws would require the manufacturers to sell parts, make diagnostic tools available to identify the source of the problem, and publish repair manuals.
Not only does allowing consumers to repair parts like broken phone screens and poorly performing batteries help build customer satisfaction and brand loyalty, but it’s also good for the planet. That’s because all those discarded old smartphones and other devices end up in landfills, where they poison not only the land but also the air and the water.
E-waste a growing problem
Seventy percent of the electronic waste, or e-waste, in the U.S. goes to landfills, including around 30 million computers as well as tablets, TVs, and office electronics. The U.N. Environment Program projects that e-waste from old computers will rise as much as 400 percent from 2007 levels by the year 2020. Even worse, in places like India, Ghana and China, e-waste is burned in open pits, putting the health of countless people at risk.
The organization e-Stewards points out that electronic waste has toxic substances including lead, mercury, arsenic, beryllium and cadmium. Moreover, the brominated flame retardants they contain create some of the most toxic substances around, furans and halogenated dioxins, when they are burned.
Many heavy metals accumulate in the environment and your body over time, where they have been linked to problems like reproductive and brain damage, endocrine disruption, and cancer.
If you find out that those frustrating patent laws are working against you and you can’t repair your device or you simply want to get a newer version, do the responsible thing. Donate it to someone else who can use it if it still works – and be sure to ask them to dispose of it responsibly once it has outlived its usefulness. If it’s broken beyond repair, track down responsible e-recyclers in your area using sites like E-Stewards. Retailers like Staples and Best Buy have also committed to responsible recycling.