On Tuesday, August 22, the Illini Gadget Garage will be hosting a screening of the documentary Death by Design at the Champaign Public Library. Doors will open at 6:30 PM and the film will begin at 7:00. The film duration is 73 minutes.
The Illini Gadget Garage is a repair center that helps consumers with “do-it-together” troubleshooting and repair of minor damage and performance issues of electronics and small appliances. The project promotes repair as a means to keep products in service and out of the waste stream.
Death by Design explores the environmental and human costs of electronics, particularly considering their impacts in the design and manufacture stages, bearing in mind that many electronic devices are not built to be durable products that we use for many years. Cell phones, for example, are items that consumers change frequently, sometimes using for less than 2 years before replacing with a new model. When we analyze the effort put into, and potential negative impacts of, obtaining materials for devices through efforts like mining, the exposure to potentially harmful substances endured by laborers in manufacturing plants, and the environmental degradation and human health risks associated with informal electronics recycling practices in various parts of the word, the idea that we might see these pieces of technology as “disposable” in any way becomes particularly poignant. For more information on the film, including reviews, see http://deathbydesignfilm.com/about/ and http://bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/dbd.html. You can also check out the trailer at the end of this post.
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.
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.
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.
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 explainin 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.
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.
In a just and simple world, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would thrive off possessing such a rich variety of natural resources. Unfortunately, this is not the case and valuable minerals are used to finance conflict and destabilize the DRC. Even though it has taken a bit too long, the rest of the world has begun to think about ways to eliminate conflict minerals from the global supply chain. Governments have begun to pass legislation with the intent to foster responsible sourcing. Additionally, there are industry associations focused on helping manufacturers identify conflict-free sources for minerals and non-profit organizations that shine the spotlight on corporate use of conflict minerals and raise awareness of relevant issues among consumers. Fortunately, the world wide supply chain is responding to external pressures and progress is being made in the war on conflict minerals.
In 2010, the heavily publicized Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed. Dodd-Frank is primarily known for bringing about significant changes in financial regulation. However, Section 1502 of the act addresses the trade and use of conflict materials and hopes to make the corporate supply chain more transparent. This legislation introduced requirements for independent third party supply chain traceability audits, and all publicly traded companies must report their mineral sourcing to the public and the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission. More than 70 percent of smelters that produce the 3Ts (tin, tantalum, tungsten) and gold have now passed conflict-free audits. In turn, as these audits are pushed down supply lines, the new regulations will even impact private and foreign companies that are not directly regulated by the SEC. For example, corporations now feel the pressure to only source certified conflict free minerals, and mining operations are increasingly separating themselves from local militia groups. American efforts have helped inspire other governments to pursue similar actions and the EU passed its own conflict minerals regulations a little over a month ago. Like Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank, it aims to improve supply chain diligence. However, the EU legislation does differ in a few ways and applies to minerals that are sourced in regions outside of the DRC as well. The European regulation further differs in that it applies to a more narrowly defined set of companies and fewer downstream purchasers are covered under it.
While current regulations in the arena of conflict minerals are noble in intent, they have not been implemented free of criticism. As there is a large trend in governments slashing budgets, certain regulations that are perceived to be financially burdensome are being targeted. Accordingly, the cost of ensuring compliance with Dodd-Frank 1502 has been heavily scrutinized. This regulation can financially justify itself though. Costs to implement the act have dropped significantly as many innovations and tools are available to issuers and suppliers at no cost. Moreover, many corporations contribute to an audit fund that reduces some of the cost of audits to smelters. Furthermore, these efforts support U.S. national security concerns as they stabilize the region and remove power from warlords. Other arguments surrounding this part of Dodd-Frank revolve around closing existing loopholes. Some parts of Section 1502 are hard to interpret and have resulted in legal grey areas. Companies are required to “conduct a reasonable country of origin inquiry”–what counts as “reasonable” is open to interpretation. As global supply chains are increasingly complex, legislation needs to acknowledge this and make sure that companies investigate to the appropriate extent. As the extent is not clearly defined, companies have some wiggle room in disputing civil penalties.
Dodd-Frank has been a good start in the fight against conflict minerals, but more work needs to be done. Governments around the world need to help fund the construction of infrastructure and occupational training in the DRC’s mining regions. The mining sector has been hit hard by the conflict-free transition and many people’s livelihood no longer exists. Accurately tracing the source of conflict minerals in very important, but in order for it to have meaning it has to be followed by efforts to reduce or eliminate their usage. Under Dodd-Frank companies do not have self-auditing power, but the third parties that audit them are not monitored by a strict set of standards. In further defining what rigors smelters and other areas of the supply chain must undergo to show that they are conflict free, one common metric should be used to accurately access compliance.
Current regulation may still need to go farther, but fortunately there are industry associations and non-governmental organizations committed to the fight against conflict mines. See for example the Conflict Free Sourcing Initiative, Responsible Sourcing Network, and Raise Hope for Congo. Some efforts focus on promoting conflict-free mines in the Eastern DRC region. Some companies have completely stopped sourcing from the region, but this has harmed many miners that are not involved with the warlords. In response, efforts have been made to identify and promote responsibly sourced minerals from the DRC. Other organizations focus on tabulating the progress specific large companies have made on responsibly sourcing conflict minerals. For example see the Enough Project/Raise Hope for Congo Conflict Minerals Company Rankings at http://www.raisehopeforcongo.org/content/conflict-minerals-company-rankings. Some companies are making much greater efforts than others. For instance, Intel was the first company to publicly commit to making a fully conflict-free product with a deadline. On the other end of the spectrum, Nintendo has made no known efforts to trace or audit its supply chain. Unfortunately, the United States is considering abandoning the current regulations on conflict minerals that it presently has in place. This means that activist groups may play an increasingly vital role in informing the public and ensuring responsible sourcing among companies. Raise Hope for Congo conveniently provides a link that suggests ways you can take action.
Of course, another great way to help decrease the demand for conflict minerals is by either repairing or donating the technology that you possess. If you cut down on the amount of tech that you buy, then you will be cutting down on the vast array of minerals that are mined to produce it.
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.
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.
One hallmark of modern society is that technology has facilitated communication that was previously impossible due to insurmountable distances. Accordingly, cell phones play a vital role in the majority of Americans’ lives. For example, in a recent poll Time magazine found that a whopping 84% of Americans could not even last a day without their cell phones. The capacity of cell phones has increased rapidly over the past decade and smartphones have emerged to take a dominant role within the market. While smart phones may be user friendly, the supply chain that they are created from is not so simple. Numerous elements are used in smart phone manufacture and 70 of the 83 nonradioactive elements can be found within them. These elements come from all corners of the world and are representative of the global supply chain that is common in the production process. Unfortunately, some of these elements are purchased from unscrupulous warlords that use profits to further human suffering.
Extracting resources from conflict zones for the purpose of fueling war related activities has a long and tragic history. A commonly cited example in the minds of many people was portrayed in the movie Blood Diamond. This movie portrayed how profits from selling conflict diamonds contributed to civil unrest in Sierra Leone. The term “conflict commodity” actually emerged in the late 1990s in reference to diamonds that were financing strife in Angola and Sierra Leone. Presently, the term “conflict mineral” is often used and describes minerals that fund militia groups and the extremely brutal warfare that they engage in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict minerals extracted from the DRC are widely used in modern technological devices and the term itself typicallys refers to Tantalum, Tin, Tungsten, and Gold.
Conflict minerals in the DRC are largely located in remote mines found in the eastern regions of the country. The DRC has long suffered from a low human development index and rampant corruption. The government is based in the Western city of Kinshasa and its control over the country is often tenuous at best. Moreover, conflict has ravaged the country for the past 20 years and the eastern mining region is largely under control of warlords. Various rebel groups contest over the valuable resources and employ brutal tactics. Oftentimes, child soldiers and slave labor is used in order to achieve their aims. The welfare of people is given no quarter by these local militias and they are only concerned about selling minerals at a maximum profit, so that they can improve their military arsenal and propagate warfare. Sadly, the fierce fighting in the DRC has taken six million lives since 1996 and an alarming number of women have been raped during this period as well.
Now that we know the abysmal conditions under which these minerals are mined, it is important to understand how they make it into the global supply chain. The first step involves smuggling freshly mined minerals out of the DRC. The chaotic history of the region has resulted in the formation of a well-organized and deeply entrenched smuggling network. In fact, a 2014 UN report estimated that a staggering 98% of gold produced in the country was smuggled out. All conflict materials are smuggled out of the DRC at high rates and into neighboring African countries. In places like Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya conflict minerals are mixed with minerals from more legitimate sources and refined. From there these refined minerals are sold to smelters around the world, where they are prepared to be used in the manufacture process. It is certainly unfortunate that materials used to finance such awful causes have the potential to make it into our supply chain. However, as consumers we are not helpless in this matter. There are agencies and companies that try to manage the source of materials that they use in manufacture. Furthermore, recent government regulations both domestically and abroad target how conflict minerals are sourced and are aimed at eliminating their usage. In my next post I will address these developments.