Greenpeace and iFixit Assign Reparability Grades, Advocate for Durable Electronics

iFixit, the self-proclaimed “free repair guide for everything, written by everyone,” and Greenpeace, the environmental organization which has in the past published a “Guide to Greener Electronics,” have teamed up to assess how easy or difficult it may be to repair over 40 popular electronic devices. The assessments, including smartphones, tablets, and laptops launched between 2015 and 2017, can be found online at https://www.rethink-it.org/.

As electronic devices become smaller and sleeker, it’s sometimes the case that decisions are made at the industrial design stage, that, while making the product lighter and more aesthetically pleasing, can adversely impact the ability to repair it, or to dismantle it for recycling and material recovery at its end-of-life. Perhaps a battery will be glued in to avoid inclusion of a structure to hold the battery in place. Or perhaps the device will be unable to be opened without a special tool that most consumers or even many independent repair shops wouldn’t have. iFixit has been giving electronics “repairability scores” for years, based on criteria such as these, as well as considerations of how quickly a device can be dismantled, whether parts are modular and durable, whether components such as memory are upgradeable, whether repair manuals for the product are readily available, etc. Scores are on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most easily repaired item. The trend toward devices that are harder to repair or upgrade has resulted in a proliferation of electronic waste. When something goes wrong with a gadget these days, it’s not uncommon to simply replace it without giving repair a second thought.

The scores in the joint iFixit/Greenpeace list are also on a scale of 1-10, but are based on a simpler list of criteria: battery replaceability, display replaceability, whether special tools are needed, and whether spare parts are available. This latest round of repairability scores is all part of a joint campaign called “RethinkIT.” The campaign is focused on encouraging consumers to be more aware of how manufacturers contribute to waste generation through poor design and planned obsolescence–and how such design decisions can actually benefit the manufacturers. After all, they WANT to sell electronics, so if you’re more likely to replace something than repair it, that’s a form of success from their perspective. The “RethinkIT” campaign ties the list of repairability scores to a petition consumers can sign, expressing their desire for manufacturers to create products that are meant to last.

At the Illini Gadget Garage, consumers can observe first hand how design decisions impact the repairability of their personal devices, as they work with our staff and volunteers to troubleshoot and repair them. It can be an eye-opening experience, which may end up influencing future decisions on device purchases.

Read more about the RethinkIT campaign here: Greenpeace and iFixit slam smartphone companies over e-waste

Example of score from the iFixit/Greenpeace list, showing the Fairphone 2 with a 10 out of 10 possible points.

Note: Organizations, products, or links included here are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute endorsement by the Illini Gadget Garage, the University of Illinois, or associated departments and projects.

Repair Elsewhere: Repair Cafés

We want to help spread awareness of like-minded projects that foster repair, reuse, consumer empowerment, and community building throughout the world. So we’re highlighting these “kindred spirits” in a series of posts on “Repair Elsewhere.” Look for other posts in the series within the “Repair” category in our post archives.

Repair Cafe logo, consisting of the words in stylized font alongside  two interlocking cogs

A Repair Café is a community meeting organized and hosted by local residents or organizations where members of the public work together with volunteer guides to repair a variety of household items, such as small appliances, clothing, electronics, bicycles, etc. The gatherings are typically free and held in public spaces, and the goals include not only waste reduction, but also sharing of knowledge, consumer empowerment, and building a stronger sense of community through cooperation. Sound familiar? It should, since the concept of Repair Cafés helped shape the idea for the Illini Gadget Garage (IGG)!

The notion of having some form of technology repair center on campus was proposed and revised among staff members at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) working on the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) for many years, as I explain in my profile on the IGG site (I’m IGG adviser and ISTC sustainability specialist, Joy Scrogum, if we’ve not met. Thanks for reading our posts!) Despite many attempts, my colleagues and I weren’t able to obtain funding for those previous iterations of the idea. Eventually, I learned more about Repair Cafés, which don’t focus specifically on a particular type of consumer product. I thought, that’s what we’re really trying to start–a Repair Café for electronics! And that’s how I would describe it to people. (For those on the UI campus I’d also say the idea would be a bit like the Campus Bike Center, but for electronics–but we’ll talk about that project in a separate post.) This helped make the concept understandable, relatable, and appealing, and thankfully we ultimately received seed funding from the UI Student Sustainability Committee, as well as donations from HOBI International and iFixit to launch the project.

But I digress–back to the story of Repair Cafés. The concept was created by Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2009. Martine was a former journalist and mother of two, who found herself considering the environment more after the birth of her second child.  In an excellent article on the concept from a 2012 edition of the New York Times (“An Effort to Bury a Throwaway Culture One Repair at a Time” by Sally McGrane), Postma explained that she was struck by observing the tendency to throwaway items that were not “that broken.” From the Times article: “I had the feeling I wanted to do something, not just write about it,” she said. But she was troubled by the question: “How do you try to do this as a normal person in your daily life?” She drew her own inspiration from a “a design exhibit about the creative, cultural and economic benefits of repairing and recycling,” and fixed her sights on helping people fix things as a practical approach to waste reduction.

That design exhibit was called “Platform 21=Repairing.” The organizers created a “Repair Manifesto” which encouraged people to “Stop Recycling. Start Repairing.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but totally agree that recycling alone is not enough, and that repair and reuse are absolutely essential sustainability strategies. The exhibit was held in a former round chapel in Amsterdam that continued to serve as a workspace for the organization Platform 21 for a few years. See http://www.platform21.nl/page/133/en and http://www.platform21.nl/page/6026/en for more information on that project.

Smiling woman sitting at a work table covered with various tools. In the background, people work together on repairs.
Martine Postma, from the Repair Cafe web site.

Martine held the first Repair Café in Amsterdam in a theater foyer. The idea was taken to multiple other public venues, and ultimately inspired the formation of “spin offs” in countries around the world. According to the Times, funding is provided to the Repair Café Foundation through grants from the Dutch government, support from other foundations, and small donations, which pay for staffing, daily expenses, marketing, and a Repair Café bus. (Don’t laugh, but I’ve totally thought of having something like that for the Illini Gadget Garage–like a book mobile or mobile science center for fixing things! Someday perhaps. Anybody want to donate a vehicle??? 🙂 ) The project’s web site provides information on how you can set up your own Repair Café–for a small fee you receive a manual, the logo and marketing templates, and listing in their online directory, which can assist in connecting your project to like-minded projects near you. The Illini Gadget Garage chose not to become an “official” Repair Cafe because of our more narrow focus on electronics and small appliances, and also because we thought there would be greater value in associating our identity with the University of Illinois, where we launched and operate. In this part of the world, at this point in time, “Illini” is more immediately meaningful for people than “Repair Café.” Plus, since we’re trying to build a culture of repair and community spirit around repair and reuse right here in the home of the Illini, a more “customized” identity seemed right.

Visit the Repair Café web site to learn more about Repair Cafés worldwide, including several in the US. In Illinois, Repair Cafés exist in Oak Park and Chicago. If you’re on the UIUC campus, contact us to visit our physical workshop or arrange a “pop-up” clinic at your building. On campus pop-ups are currently free thanks to the support of our sponsors. If you’re off campus, we conduct community pop-ups with support of sponsors (consider a donation to help us spread the repair spirit), and for a fee we can bring a pop-up to your organization or business for a special employee engagement event. If you want to become a volunteer, we’d love to have people from any academic discipline, and staff and community members as well as students. Join us–repair is not only great for the planet and pocketbook, it’s also a lot of fun!

A pair of women sit at a sewing machine working together, while additional women can be seen on each side working with cloth and mending by hand.
Image from the Repair Cafe International Facebook page.

Illini Gadget Garage Announces Hours for Summer 2017 and Off-Campus Services

The Illini Gadget Garage (IGG) is a collaborative repair center on the UIUC campus to assist students, staff and faculty with troubleshooting and repair of minor damage and performance issues for their personally owned electronic devices and small appliances. The project is coordinated by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Technical Assistance Program as a waste reduction outreach project of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI).

Summer hours
The IGG has announced hours for Summer 2017. “Pop-up” repair clinics will be held at the Undergraduate Library Media Commons on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM. Open hours will be held at the IGG’s physical workshop (INHS Storage Building #3) on South Oak Street on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 AM to 2 PM and on Fridays from noon to 4 PM. A map is available for directions to the physical location: http://tinyurl.com/guv4n9z. Note that hours are subject to change, as staff are working to schedule more pop-up clinics in order to bring services to a wider audience, so check the project web site or Facebook page for announcements.

Image which lists the summer 2017 hours for the Illini Gadget Garage

Bring a pop-up repair clinic to your facility
Related to that spirit of expansion, the IGG is now offering off-campus pop-ups for companies and organizations that would like to bring “do-it-together” repair to their site as way to engage employees and patrons in product stewardship and sustainability. Staff will come to your location with the necessary tools, and they can arrange to have your audience fill out a diagnostic form in advance so they can research information on the devices and issues being faced ahead of time, making one-on-one interactions during the event more productive. Off-campus pop-ups are 2-4 hours long to allow sufficient time for troubleshooting, repairs, and any additional research. Note that IGG does not sell parts, but if it is determined that a part is needed, staff can assist individuals in determining the exact models of required parts and in researching ways to obtain the part. Staff can also help individuals identify local repair businesses that could help them address more complex damage or businesses that can accept items for proper recycling if they are beyond repair. IGG can help identify local businesses and/or online vendors for informational purposes only; the IGG does not endorse any external business and the ultimate decision of how/where to obtain parts or services is that of the consumer.

A pop-up repair clinic can provide a unique benefit to your staff, and be part of your organization’s sustainability efforts, by creating conversations around the impacts of product manufacture, design, and end-of-life management. Such events also provide empowerment and team building opportunities. If you have questions or are interested in scheduling a clinic at your facility, please contact Joy Scrogum, ISTC Sustainability Specialist, for more information and pricing. Fees are charged to the host organization of a pop-up clinic to support staff members’ time both at the event and for preparation; however individuals that attend your event (e.g. employees and/or patrons) are not themselves charged for the assistance they receive. Off-campus pop-up clinics are not restricted to the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area, but please be aware that additional fees may apply for travel.

View from above showing a student seated at a table working with tools to dismantle and repair a laptop

Support IGG outreach in your community or on the UIUC campus
Companies and corporations interested in sponsoring a pop-up repair clinic in their community or at a particular public space are encouraged to contact Joy Scrogum to discuss possibilities and to receive instructions for contributions to the appropriate UI Foundation fund. Additionally, any individual or company interested in supporting IGG’s efforts to provide product stewardship and waste reduction guidance to the UIUC community at no cost to students, faculty and staff may make online donations via the UI Foundation to the “SEI Various Donors Fund,” which supports the educational efforts of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative. You may indicate “Support the Illini Gadget Garage” in the “Special Instructions” section of the online donation form. We thank you and the project’s current sponsors for your support!

Apple Dreams in Green

In recent news, Apple released their annual Environmental Responsibility report which highlights the things that the corporation is doing to be more “green” such as encouraging renewable energy throughout the manufacturing process and trying to create sustainable practices for the paper used in their product packaging. But perhaps the most notable mention that came from this report was the declaration that one day it would end its reliance on mining and make its products solely from recycled materials or renewable resources. This is certainly a lofty goal for Apple and one worth pursuing even if they’re not sure how to go about it or when they’ll be able to achieve it.

Apple has been dubbed one of the most environmentally friendly technology companies in the world according to Greenpeace’s Clean Energy Index, leading the way among other tech industry giants like Google and Facebook. Apple has made significant progress in being environmentally conscientious from where it was several years ago and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. However, as they continue to seek ways to benefit the environment, they do so in pushing forward in developing new technologies rather than seeking to extend the life of existing ones.

Lifespans for electronics in the industry – as a whole – are dropping; even Apple places the iPhone’s estimated lifespan at around 3 years; not terribly impressive considering its cost. Two elements which play largely into determining how long a device can be considered relevant and useful are planned obsolescence and consumerism. Planned obsolescence, where devices are designed to fail at some point so that new devices can be purchased, can be done through a variety of means such as: limiting warranty periods, ending software upgrades and product support, hardware decisions, and discontinuing the availability of repair parts.

For all of Apple’s green efforts, they clearly do not want individuals working on repairing and extending the life of their products, even going so far as to shred its old products so that salvageable parts are not resold; a method that is used to protect its brand by preventing secondhand parts from flooding the market. While the shredded remains of iPhones are sifted apart and recycled to the best of Apple’s ability, the fact remains that those components could have been put to better use in keeping another device from landing in the shredder itself.

Image of shredded electronic devices
Shredded electronic devices from a Canadian E-waste Recycling Facility (no affiliation with Apple or this article). Photo from iFixit.org. Click the image to read more.

Consumerism is the other side of the technology lifespan coin for those individuals who want to have the latest and greatest devices. As a culture, we’re far more willing to go out and purchase something new rather than attempt to repair it and the tech industry knows this and promotes it. Apple, in showing off their going green endeavors, are either consciously or unconsciously coaxing consumers into feeling less guilt about buying new models each year. Consumers enjoy feeling that their purchase is created in an environmentally friendly way and that the devices will be recycled at the end of their lifecycle, but supporting Apple’s sustainable practices is negated by buying a brand-new phone each year when the old one worked just fine. In fact, studies have been done that show the availability of recycling as an option can lead to an increase in resource usage.

While recycling is a good alternative to throwing things away, prolonging the useful life of a product is far better. There’s a reason that Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is presented in that order.

Local (Champaign-Urbana) Repair Guide

We know that even “do-it-together” repair can be intimidating for some people, or maybe you just don’t have the time in your busy schedule currently to come in and participate in the repair of your device. We understand, but want you to still consider repair before replacement of your device. Also, there are times when a client comes in for assistance and we find that the problem with their device is beyond our abilities at the Illini Gadget Garage, but we still believe the item in question can be repaired. For these types of instances, we have composed a list of local repair shops, and posted it on our website under the “Repair” tab. You can either access a spreadsheet that list addresses, contact information, hours, and the types of devices serviced, or a map that shows their physical locations.

Be aware that you will not find chains like Best Buy or Dick Van Dyke listed. This is because they mainly specialize in servicing products that were bought on their premises–plus we know you’re probably already aware of those options for service. If your merchandise is currently covered by a warranty policy, we fully encourage you to take it the location from where it was purchased. We just want you to know that the main focus of the resources we provide is to guide you to shops that specialize in repair no matter where or how long ago an item was purchased.

We also want to be clear–the Illini Gadget Garage does NOT endorse any of the listed businesses. This list is provided for information purposes only, to help those who come to us for assistance to find additional services they require. We do not refer clients to specific businesses; we merely provide the names of companies that can service the device in question. The decision as to which, if any, of the local shops you go to, is yours as a consumer.

What if your device can’t be repaired? Don’t worry–we can help you with that too. Check out our “Recycle” page at http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/recycle/. That page includes a link to the Champaign County Electronics Recycling guide, which lists local electronics recyclers, and provides links to the Illinois EPA Service Locator page and other relevant information on the electronics landfill ban in Illinois.

Have other questions? Have a suggestion for a local repair shop to add to our list? Send us a note at illinigadgetgarage@gmail.com.

Pop Ups!

Are you interested in learning about how to become a more empowered consumer and are you interested in technology? Would you like to learn tinkering skills that will serve you well throughout life?  If so, the Illini Gadget Garage is looking to mobilize its services and can come directly to you. Host a pop-up clinic–we can tailor our demonstrations and assistance to the needs of your organization.  At a pop-up clinic we can troubleshoot cell phone repair, laptop teardowns, solve software issues, or demonstrate how to solve a wide array of other issues. There is no need to worry about having the right tools or equipment, we are well stocked and all you need to do is show up.

In addition, we are open to helping all groups of people and you need not feel like you have to have prior experience with sustainability related topics. For example, on March 14th we set up a pop-up during Teenspace, an after school program for local middle and high school students. Our interactions with the adolescents helped foster a fun learning experience. Students not only worked with tools, but also learned about the accessibility of technology and the right to repair. Some students even stated that the experience made them, “want to work with technology one day.” There are many people around campus who have yet to decide on a career path and as technology is an emergent field, someone may find that they are naturally inclined towards it.

Our pop-up clinic service is free for on-campus entities thanks to funding from the Student Sustainability Committee.

Fill out the “Host a Pop-Up Clinic” online form to indicate your interest and to provide some basic information about your situation. We’ll be in touch for scheduling!