Most of our modern electronic devices end up on the scrap heap after only a few years. But as the push for a more circular economy gains traction, pressure is building for products that can be repaired and reused.
When it comes to smartphone, tablet and laptop designs, thin is beautiful these days. The tradeoff between style and lifetime, however, is often to the detriment of the latter, as reparability ranks low in the minds of manufacturers.
"In the latest models, the battery and the display are often glued to the gadget's body, which also makes it waterproof. It's a low-cost compromise enabling manufacturers to focus on thin design rather than reparability. That cannot be achieved when you screw the parts together," said Dorothea Kessler, communications director at iFixit Europe.
The Stuttgart, Germany-based nonprofit organization is spearheading a drive of more than a million technicians and hobby repairers collaborating in a global online community demanding a "right to repair" for customers.
After a new mobile gadget hits the market, the repair enthusiasts try to take it apart and reassemble its components. The aim of the exercise is to feed the organization's Reparability Index with fresh data and scores from one to 10 points for gadgets.
Its newest smartphone survey shows two gadgets of alternative phone maker Fairphone clearly leading in terms of repair friendliness.
All other smartphones ranked, lost points due to their batteries and screen covers being glued together or attached with screws that could only be loosened with specialist tools.
"Our Reparability Index is intended to underscore the need for repairable products in a sustainable circular economy, and is meant to give customers advice for their purchasing decisions," Kessler told DW.
Easy to repair devices are still niche products in many markets. Especially the latest generations of smartphones from big manufacturers, including Samsung and Huawei, lag hopelessly behind in the iFixit ranking; iPhone maker Apple is only marginally better.
In the eyes of manufacturers, says Matthias Stollberg, reparability is not so important and other concerns are obviously given priority. Stollberg is head of communications at Delo, a leading global producer of adhesives for electronic components based in Germany.
"Our customers put a strong emphasis on durability. An accidental loosening of smartphone components is what they want to avoid by any means," he told DW.
Stollberg says that the bonding agents used in smartphones must meet additional parameters like electric conductibility and transparency, which would make using removable parts amount to the proverbial "squaring of the circle." He acknowledges though, that ungluing components such as displays and batteries was considered by manufacturers, but not for smaller parts like cameras.
Although Delo is currently working on more repair-friendly bonding agents, the technology has its limits, says Stollberg. Instead, he suggests mechanical methods, like scratching off the adhesive, or using a thin heated wire to liquefy the glue, but admits that the latter would work with glass and metal, but less with plastic.
Repair enthusiasts can rarely use conventional tools like screwdrivers when they want to fix a damaged device
Giving a medium-term perspective, the Delo executive expects water, acidic or solvent-based agents to help overcome the problem, but adds this would raise new challenges for water resistance as well as concerns for environmental and labor protection. Other possibilities include using ultraviolet light, ultrasound or even infrared rays.
But iFixit spokeswoman Dorothea Kessler has even more complaints targeted at smartphone makers. Software updates are a frequent hassle preventing people from using their gadgets longer.
"Software updates for older models are ending after only a few years. Or, like with the new iPhone 12, repairs can lead to limited access to updates. All of this makes smartphones obsolete even though their hardware is still functioning or could be repaired," she said.
Other issues iFixit has with manufacturers is limited access to repair handbooks and hardware information, and the availability of components at fair prices. The manufacturers, she notes, often cite copyright or security concerns for their common practice of providing only licensed dealers with crucial information and key components, including diagnostics and repair tools. Independent repairers, notably those working from repair cafes, and DIY enthusiasts are intentionally cut out, she argues.
Kessler says iFixit strongly believes in "everyone's right" to fix problems with the product they purchase, and aims to support people's efforts with free online access to do-it-yourself information.
On its website, volunteer helpers offer step-by-step guides, including photos and tool advice, on how to repair devices. The offer already comprises documentations on about 70,000 electric and electronic products in various languages. The platform funds itself through sales of tool sets and components its members have developed.
Thomas Ebert, who is responsible for eco-design at Germany's Federal Environment Agency (UBA), says the small number of repairable products in a sense highlights the failure of free-market competition. In an interview with DW he urged lawmakers to act now by imposing "a right to repair."
Ebert notes that preliminary eco-design studies for smartphones and tablet computers are currently underway and could lead to new product directives likely to be imposed by the EU in the future. In order to facilitate repairs, he says the legislation must ensure manufacturers provide key components that can be replaced with conventional tools. Longer access to pivotal software updates should also be guaranteed and is already demanded in the EU's action plan for a circular economy.
At the moment, EU lawmakers in Brussels are also discussing reparability scorecards, similar to iFixit's index, to be made obligatory for all electric and electronic devices sold in the bloc.
"Here it's important that manufacturers agree to a universal set of principles for reparability that authorities can then apply to individual products," said Ebert.
France has decided to wait no longer for an EU directive and is imposing a scorecard system from January next year. Spanner icons on scorecards ranging from zero points (red) to 10 points (green) are intended to show how quickly a damaged device can be fixed.
Ebert believes imposing the French labeling on an EU-wide level will take many more years, unless the push from Paris exerts enough pressure on other European governments to follow suit.