U Fix It clinics keep electronics out of landfills
Repair it or replace it?
Most of us face that choice at least a few times a year.
When a home appliance, a mobile phone or another piece of technology stops working, we may not know how to repair it ourselves.
We may think it’s not worth paying someone else to fix it.
So, we throw it out and buy a new one.
Many of the companies prefer the “throw it out model” because they can sell us a new one.
But there’s a growing number of do-it-yourself organizations and advocates that are helping de-mystify repair work and reduce the amount of fixable stuff that gets thrown away.
A couple of months ago, the battery on my 2014 Macbook started to die.
Charges became shorter by the hour and a “Replace battery NOW” message flashed.
A local Mac repair shop said it would cost $150 for them to install a new battery and get rid of the old one.
This is when I found a company online called iFixIt.
For $100, iFixit sold me a new battery and a couple of special little tools to open the laptop.
A few days later the new tools and battery arrived in the mail. I took them out and in about 15 minutes, I removed my old battery and installed a new one.
Elizabeth Chamberlain, the director of sustainability at iFixit, said she hears stories like mine all the time.
“Batteries are consumables, they will go bad,” she said.
“Basically, they're used in every consumer electronic device. But most of those things aren't built to make it as easy as it should be to do that kind of replacement. And I think manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping that information locked away so that you are going to the Apple store and using their authorized repair center.”
Besides selling parts and tools, iFixit, a California-based company, offers thousands of free repair guides for everything from tractors to toasters.
Many of the guides are translated into up to 12 languages.
Chamberlain said battery replacement is one of the most common consumer requests, in part, because Apple, for a long time, told the public that replacing ion batteries was dangerous.
The company claimed that rechargeable lithium-ion batteries could combust if tampered with by non-authorized mechanics.
In a 2021 report, the Federal Trade Commission released a report that found no evidence supporting the industry’s claim and that allowing individuals and unauthorized repair shops to replace batteries posed no safety risk, as long as the person replacing the battery takes simple safety precautions.
Beyond scare tactics, many computers and tech companies go out of their way to make their products tough to repair.
While my MacBook battery came out easily, in some computers and cell phones, companies glue batteries in place to make removal much more difficult.
The Environmental Protection Agency said electronics waste is the fastest-growing segment of the US waste stream.
Danny Katz, the director of Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy nonprofit that is part of a broad coalition of consumer and environmental groups, independent repair organizations and individual do-it-yourself-ers who promote legislation called, “Right to Repair,” said, companies don't want you to fix things.
“Increasingly things are designed in a way that we can’t repair or fix them and we’re forced to throw them away and buy new stuff which is a ripoff for consumers and it’s also just bad for our planet,” said Katz.
The idea of Right to Repair, he says, is that you should be allowed to fix your stuff.
“Unfortunately, more and more the stuff we buy has these digital components to it. So even if you had the screwdriver you need to unscrew the piece and even if you could figure out how to fix what’s broken, you don’t have access to the software to tell the computer it’s been fixed so, often, it still doesn’t work.”
Earlier this year, CoPIRG, worked with the disabled community to pass state legislation making it easier to fix wheelchairs and wheelchair batteries.
According to Katz, wheelchair manufacturers fought that bill.
“Wheelchair users didn’t have access to the things they needed to fix their wheelchairs, and it was having a major impact on the community,” Katz said.
“So we’re happy to have passed that bill this year. The governor signed it. It will require wheelchair manufacturers to provide access to parts, tools, and manuals.”
The Colorado wheelchair repair law goes into effect on January 1 and is one of the first in the country.
New York State Legislature passed a much broader Right to Repair bill earlier this year that is awaiting the governor’s signature.
On a recent Sunday afternoon at the Boulder Main Library, about a dozen people huddled around work tables in Building 61, the library’s maker space.
At the Boulder UFixit clinic, volunteer coaches help people learn how to repair a wide range of electronics and household items.
Sylvan Hayoun, a retired engineer, was helping fix a noisy fan.
The retired engineer said he enjoys volunteering at the clinics and helping people be more confident about trying their own repairs.
“We tried different things,” he said.
“We start with oil first, putting some oil here in the middle and that did work a bit better. Then we took everything apart, and we cleaned up inside the bearing which seemed dusty.”
Erin Brennan, who brought her fan into the clinic said she's learned a lot.
“They were empowering me to open up, take off screws, so I appreciate that,” she said.
“I’ve never seen the inside of a little motor like that.”
At another table, someone is disassembling a turntable and stereo speakers.
Others have cell phones, electric lawnmowers, and a coffeemaker.
Clinic volunteers say they see all kinds of kitchen appliances, ink-jet printers, and a lot of lamps.
Wayne Seltzer founded the Boulder UFixit Clinic about ten years ago, in partnership with local nonprofit Ecocycle.
“We always ask our participants three questions: What was this thing like when it was working? What happened when it broke? And what have you done since then?” he said.
There are now about a thousand people on his UFixIT mailing list.
Like volunteer coach Sylvan Hayoun, Seltzer is also an engineer.
He grew up in a family of frugal immigrants, learning how to fix stuff from his dad. Seltzer loves passing on that knowledge.
“What I’m most proud of is when people come here claiming to not know how to use a screwdriver and eventually learn enough skills that they want to volunteer as a coach,” he said.
“That is awesome.”
Whether you want to save money, reduce waste or just learn more about how devices work, the Boulder UFixIt is there to help you exercise your right to repair.
This story from KGNU was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations including KDNK in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.