Electronics makers this week are unveiling a slew of consumer gadgets designed to make life cleaner, safer, more comfortable, more entertaining and even more eco-friendly. But there's a downside, say consumer advocates: Most of the products are challenging, if not impossible, for most people to fix, and are likely to last just a few years before becoming e-waste.
"When you see a project demoed, you don't think about its lifecycle — you don't think about what happens when the software updates stop coming," said Nathan Proctor, director of the Right to Repair Campaign for U.S. PIRG, a public-interest research group.
That practice not only trashes the planet but costs consumers big bucks, according to PIRG. Americans waste $40 billion each year from not being able to repair products, the group noted in a report last week. That comes to about $330 per household every year. And the proliferation of internet-connected "smart" devices is adding to the stream of hard-to-repair items, consumer advocates say.
"It's getting harder for people to buy things that are repairable. The problem is getting worse, much worse," said Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, a small lobbying group that advocates for independent repair shops.
"Look at all the stuff that has chips in it," she added. "My hair dryer has a chip. My toothbrush has a chip. Anything with a battery is hard to repair, unless the manufacturer makes it easy."
Here are some tactics used to keep gadgets unfixable — and some things a savvy consumer might be able to do about it.
Glue, glue everywhere
Anyone who got their first smartphone in the aughts likely remembers a time when replacing the battery was as easy as slipping off the back cover. Today, if a consumer is even able to pry off their device cover, they're more than likely to find components glued or soldered together, making simple replacements a prospect for the repair store.
"Ten years ago you could slide off the back of the phone, and pop out the battery," said Olivia Webb, spokesperson for iFixit, a parts retailer and online community dedicated to repair. "Now, they are adhered with screws, battery pull tabs, some of them are straight-up glued in. People don't want you to replace your battery — they want you to buy a new phone."
This trend has spread beyond phones. Plenty of computers now come with components glued together, so when one component fails, a consumer has to send in the entire thing for repair.
"Especially with laptops, both the memory and the hard drive now are oftentimes incorporated into the motherboard. They are not these distinct elements anymore that you could swap out," said Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center in New York. The center ran an electronics repair program in New York for over a decade before pausing last year.
"You're hitting a point where you cannot upgrade your technology anymore. And I think that is another way of forcing people to buy a new machine instead of upgrading an old machine."
Even getting into a device has become more challenging. Apple in 2011 pioneered the use of five-pointed screws (dubbed 'pentalobe' screws) for iPhones, which couldn't be opened with a standard screwdriver. (iFixit reverse-engineered a screwdriver to be able to unlock the device; it has since become broadly available). Disassembling the iPhone 12 requires four different types of screwdrivers, according to Hugh Jeffreys, a technologist and advocate of the Right to Repair movement.
Manufacturers often say that such measures are for the customer's protection. For instance, PRBA-The Rechargeable Battery Association points to a 2011 incident in which an airplane passenger's smartphone caught fire on a flight as an example of the dangers of do-it-yourself repair.
"Even with the correct tools, consumers and independent repair shops likely have limited knowledge of a battery and product's sophisticated safety features, which creates an inherent risk during repair and when the product is being used after repairs are completed," the group said in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission.
You tinkered? No warranty for you!
Electronics' paperwork usually hammers home the point that no one, except for the company that made the product, can be trusted to repair it. And if you so much as open the wrong panel, you'll void the warranty.
Such warnings are illegal. Consumer advocates point to the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and antitrust laws, which forbid companies from making warranties conditional on using specific parts or repair services.
Still, the practice is rampant. Two years ago, the Federal Trade Commission warned six companies against such void-warranty language. (The recipients were revealed to be ASUSTeK, HTC, Hyundai, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony Computer Entertainment.) And plenty of electronics come with stickers warning the consumer not to tinker.
There are more subtle ways of discouraging repair. A sticker might not have an explicit warning but might strategically cover a panel that needs to be removed to repair a device.
"This creates a chilling effect because just lifting the tape damages it and it becomes evidence of tamper; consumers take pause before removing it," Peter Mui, founder of the Fixit Clinic, said in a letter to the FTC.
If a company insists they won't honor a warranty because you tried to repair a product, advocates say the intrepid consumer should keep trying, escalating to managers if they need to.
"Companies have backed down when consumers know their rights. But the salesperson at the counter is not going to know," said Gay Gordon-Byrne, of the Repair Association. Still, she said, it's an upright battle. "It's a hard spot. We need enforcement that isn't happening," she said.
"Loss leader" pricing
Repairing rather than replacing gadgets usually saves their owners money. But sometimes new electronics are priced so cheaply that repairing them doesn't make financial sense. Such is the case with printers, which are deliberately sold cheaply; the manufacturer then makes a healthy profit on ink or toner cartridges. (Razors are sold on a similar model.)
"We have learned the hard way that fixing printers is basically not worth it," said Datz-Romero, of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. As she explained it: The time it takes to fix the device and the price of a new cartridge cost the center more than the price they could command for a refurbished printer. Indeed, new printers are so cheap that consumers often avoid replacing the toner altogether.
"A lot of times, buying new laser cartridges for printers can be so expensive, people just throw out the printer and get a new one instead of replacing the cartridge," she said.
Squeezing repair shops
Most laptop or computer users are likely less inclined to want to tinker with a broken device and more interested in being able to use it again, without paying through the nose. But when manufacturers restrict the availability of spare parts or tools, it makes it harder for independent repair shops, too.
"What people think is a healthy business repairing cell phones is actually very precarious," Gordon-Gay said. "If it wasn't for companies like [iFixit], there would be no cell phone repair."
Gordon-Gay points to cars as a counterpoint. There are about 500,000 independent mechanics in the U.S., repairing 273 million vehicles, but there are just 140,000 independent technicians in the consumer electronics sector, and their number is shrinking every year.
"We could be doing a lot better in our employment and our trade deficit if we just stop letting manufacturers pretend that they're the only people capable of fixing their products," she said.
A "right to repair"?
Some manufacturers have gotten kudos for making their devices easy to fix. Dell and HP make repair manuals and spare parts available to consumers, Olivia Webb of iFixit said. Microsoft recently redesigned its Surface tablets to be easier to repair.
Apple, which has often been maligned by repair advocates, says it has been expanding its network of independent repair shops, with more than 700 locations now across the U.S.
In the meantime, iFixit grades popular laptops, tablets and smartphones based on how easy they are to repair. In France, device makers will now be required to assign such a score to their own products. In the U.S., bills for what's called the "right to repair" have been introduced in more than 30 states. Advocates hope that this year, one will become law.
"I don't know how we as consumers got to the point where we thought it was normal and acceptable to spend a thousand dollars [on a smartphone] every two years, and then do it again," Proctor said. "Eventually consumers are going to rise up. We're spending way too much."