By Rachel Ramirez and Clare Duffy, CNN

The life cycle of a smartphone starts in mines all over the world. There, the earth’s raw materials and rare earth metals are extracted from the planet in an energy-intensive process.

Those materials are transported to factories where they are refined, often using high temperatures and considerable energy, and turned into components such as batteries, wires, logic boards, and motors. The components are then transferred from fossil fuel vehicles to even more factories to be assembled into complete equipment, before being shipped to customers worldwide.

Although this production process is above the environment, it only gets worse as soon as most consumers throw away their phones. Manufacturers have made it difficult to repair equipment, and replacing it is often an easier and less costly solution for consumers, further contributing to the already dire climate crisis.

“The greenest smartphone is the one you already have,” said Cole Stratton, an associate instructor at Indiana University Bloomington who has studied technology supply chains. “Smartphones look so small and insignificant, so if you have not studied the supply chains and have not understood everything that goes into creating [them], you really have no idea how destructive to the environment these things are. ”

The growing “right to repair” movement can help.

Defenders of the right to repair, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, are calling for laws that would require device makers to release the tools, parts and repair manuals needed to allow consumers to have their products repaired by stores. independent — or do so. themselves. If consumers could repair equipment more easily, lawyers say, they would not have to replace them as often, reducing reliance on the resource-intensive manufacturing process and reducing electronic waste. And it’s not just smartphones: Repairing the right can make it easier to fix everything from tablets to tractors.

Regulators have begun to notice. US President Joe Biden recently ordered the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules that prevent manufacturers from imposing restrictions that make equipment repair difficult. One week later, the FTC undertook to investigate repair restrictions that may be illegal under federal antitrust and consumer protection laws. European regulators, meanwhile, have been ahead to repair the law, enforcing rules earlier this year that require manufacturers of appliances such as washing machines and TV screens to make repair parts and manuals available to third parties for repairs. .

Proponents of the right to repair hope the final regulatory attention will be the momentum needed to push manufacturers to finally make wider repairs.

For the climate, the push may not come as soon as possible. Scientists around the world concluded in August that it is “unequivocal” that humans have caused the climate crisis and confirmed that widespread and irreversible change has already taken place.

“If we can’t fix our things, the consequences are that we will throw in a lot more,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, a coalition fighting for the right to repair, told CNN. “We can no longer afford the volume … We are swimming in products we can no longer recycle.”

The problem of production

The supply chain for consumer electronics is global and complex, making it difficult to determine the full extent of its impact on the environment, experts say.

But the data some companies make public can help paint the picture: For example, with the iPhone 13, 81% of the 64 kilograms of carbon emissions generated by a single device come only from the manufacturing process, before shipped on shelves, according to Apple.

On an individual scale, this is not much; is almost the same as a 130 mile drive from Los Angeles to San Diego. But multiply it by the hundreds of millions of iPhones sold each year and they add up quickly. Then, apply a similar calculation to the countless other personal devices we use every day – laptops, desktops, tablets, smartwatches, smart speakers, smart headphones, and so on – and you start to get a sense of the trace of carbon production of new consumer electronics

“Everything that happens before the device reaches you is very material and energetically intense – it releases more greenhouse gases and where the most violent ecological transformation takes place,” Stratton said.

Some equipment manufacturers have worked to increase their use of more durable materials in manufacturing. Apple, for example, highlighted at its recent product launch event recycled aluminum and other reused components used in its new devices, and HP has talked about using plastics that could otherwise end up in the ocean for to Build Laptops |

However, making a consumer electronics device requires the use of non-renewable, rare earth metals that are intensive resources for mining and processing, and they cannot be easily replaced with other components, according to Stratton.

Europium and terbium, for example, are needed to make HD screens; zinc and tin help create tangible surfaces; and lithium is used in batteries – just to name a few. Even with advances in durable materials, not making a new device is still the most environmentally friendly option, Stratton said.

The case for the right of repair

Many major equipment manufacturers have designed products in a way that makes repair difficult without specialized equipment and instructions, and have restricted authorized repair shops where customers can access such repairs without compromising their device warranty. . This has become increasingly true in recent years. The latest design updates from the manufacturers include the use of glue instead of screws, which can make a device smaller and lighter, but also make it harder to separate and put back together.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment on this story. During a congressional jury hearing in 2019, Apple said it oversaw the repair process over security and reliability concerns. Device makers also say repair restrictions help protect trade secrets and advisor privacy. But restrictions could also lead to profit if consumers are forced to take their broken equipment to licensed stores, said Gartner analyst Aapo Markkanen. And it boosts sales if consumers have to replace their equipment every few years.

“We always had the right to repair our things because we paid for it, but we just lost it as a company,” Gordon-Byrne said.

Lawyers say these restrictions deprive the public of their right to do what they want with the products they own, and harm small repair businesses that can help preserve more old equipment if they have access to resources. The right one.

Tech Dump is an electronics recycling facility in Minnesota that also repairs and resells old equipment through its Tech Discounts store. It processes between 3 million and 4 million pounds of electronics each year, but can only adjust and resell about 10% of the equipment it receives.

“We have excellent technicians and our team has figured out how to repair things without the need for a repair manual from the manufacturer,” Tech Dump CEO Amanda LaGrange told CNN. “We can scale much faster, we can repair a lot more, if we could afford to have affordable access to repair parts and have affordable access to repair manuals.”

The link between electronic waste and the right to repair

The end of a product’s life cycle is also a concern for the environment. Manufacturers who oppose the right to repair often say that recycling compensates for the need to replace equipment regularly. But experts say it is not so simple.

In 2016, Jim Puckett, founder and CEO of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based electronic oversight group, visited Hong Kong as part of a global investigation analyzing the final stage of equipment life. Puckett and a team tried to track the geolocation tracking equipment that his organization and experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had put into 200 computers, printers, televisions and other devices.

The team released them to recyclers and donation centers across the United States which he said called themselves “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable” and had “strict export control” in countries in development.

But Puckett’s team found that roughly a third of the electronic devices they tracked ended up overseas, in countries like Pakistan, Thailand, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Kenya, with 87% of those devices landing in Asia, particularly in rural Hong Kong.

When Puckett and his team arrived at one of their first destinations in Hong Kong — which they found using GPS coordinates on device trackers — he said they found workers dismantling electronic waste carelessly. Workers break parts like fluorescent lights used for flat screen TVs or monitors; once damaged, these devices emit invisible mercury vapors that are toxic to public health and the environment.

“The latest pursuit of electronics life is really depressing,” Puckett told CNN. “At the end of the whole cycle, real horror shows can take place.”

Even recyclers who process waste responsibly say the procedure can be difficult because consumer electronics can contain toxic metals and chemicals, and plastics that are expensive to process, according to LaGrange.

Repair proponents say consumers and companies need to have a broader view of how we handle equipment from start to finish. Manufacturers in particular need to be aware of harmful equipment and its components that can cause environmental damage when disposed of, Puckett said.

“You have to remove the toxicity and create things that last a long time from the beginning,” Puckett said.

The total amount of electronic waste is shrinking as devices become smaller, according to a Yale 2020 study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology. But experts worry that with the upcoming “Internet of Things” revolution – where everything from clocks in refrigerators are becoming consumer electronics – the amount of waste could rise again.

“The Internet of Things is awful for every person in my work because we’re just seeing piles and piles of electronic junk coming in,” said LaGrange, who has advocated for law repairs for nearly seven years.

“The fact that we are still having this conversation is surprising,” she said. “What was encouraging about President Biden punën’s work is that we have known that repairs are important for years, they are beneficial to people, to our planet, to local business, to all things digital equity. So there was something really encouraging about what was seen. But at the same time, there are still many limitations. ”

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