iFixit Talks Scrap

Recently, our co-founder Kyle Wiens sat down with Scrap Magazine for a Q and A about our mission to teach everyone to repair everything. The interview appeared in Scrap’s November/December issue, but Scrap is graciously allowing us to repost part of article here. We’ve chosen just a few of our favorite questions from the full interview—but you can see the entire Q&A in Scrap Magazine.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

iFixit says it is “committed to solving the e-waste problem by empowering repair all over the world.” What is the e-waste problem, in your view?

The biggest tragedy with electronics is the amount of raw material it takes to manufacture these products. Most of the environmental degradation related to them is on the manufacturing side, not on the end-of-life side. I’ve been to e-waste processing yards in Ghana and Delhi, and they’re an environmental problem, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the problems from mining. Just look at the companies that are mining rare earth metals in northern China—it’s phenomenal how much damage they have caused and are continuing to cause. They’re digging a hole in the planet every single day to make the cellphones we use for 18 months and then toss away. So the real e-waste tragedy is that we’re not leveraging the material that goes into these devices as much as we could.

Aside from extending the life of electronic products, what other benefits does repair offer?

Anytime you have something that’s broken and you repair it, you’re creating economic value. Every broken electronic device is worth some baseline price. If you shred it, maybe you get $1 in commodity value. If you repair it, the value will be more than that, and the question is how much labor it takes to get there. If the labor cost is less than the increase in value, then you win. So from an economic perspective, repair is always about generating economic activity, increasing value, and creating jobs.

From an environmental perspective, when we recycle devices, we always lose trace amounts of materials. In a typical electronic product like a cellphone, recycling can capture 70 to 75 percent of the raw material mass. But a lot of the fine elements— rare earths such as indium and neodymium—that are used in trace amounts in electronic devices are definitely lost in the slag. The most advanced smelters in the world can’t capture all the trace elements in these devices, and, unfortunately, most of the world’s rare earth mining is done in environmentally damaging ways.

We like to think electronics recycling is the highest sustainable industry, but when we’re shredding devices, smelting them down, and losing trace materials that can only be replaced from raw virgin sources, there’s a problem. So iFixit’s mission is to increase each device’s lifespan and maximize the amount of time its component materials are in use.

A broken iPhone that doesn't have to become e-wasteHow do you motivate the owners of electronic products to repair their devices rather than storing them in a drawer or recycling them?

Whenever you have something that’s broken, you have two options: You can throw it away or you can take it apart. If it’s already broken and you take it apart, how much worse is it going to get? If nothing else, you’ll learn something about it; in the best case, you’ll fix it. Most people are motivated to fix things to save money. Microsoft’s Xbox is a great example. It has a common flaw that’s pretty easy to solve. The parts required to repair it are minimal, so you can fix an Xbox for $20 or $30 rather than buying a new one for $300. It’s the same story when you break the glass on a smartphone. For $40 to $50 you can buy new glass, repair the phone, and it’s good as new.

In interviews, you’ve talked about “bridging the digital divide.” What does that mean?

I think getting cellphones into the hands of everybody in the world would make the world better. I’d go so far as to say that access to telecommunications—access to the global community—is a fundamental human right. So we want to get cellphones into the hands of 7 billion people, but we can’t afford to manufacture 7 billion new iPhones every year. Currently, U.S. consumers use a cellphone for about 18 months, and then it’s time for an upgrade. But the phone still works—or it could still work with a new battery. If we extend the lifespan of devices from 18 months to 10 years, we can get those used products from developed countries to the developing world, where people would be excited to have them. That’s how we can bridge the digital divide.

What positive signs have you seen, if any, that electronics manufacturers are getting iFixit’s message?

Fairphone is a cellphone manufacturer that is doing things right. The company is going out of its way to design a phone that’s compelling, that has all the latest features, but also that’s easy to repair and recycle. It includes a repair manual on the phone itself; it designs its phones so the battery can be replaced in seconds. HP also offers some repairable, upgradable, all-in-one computers.

What was one of your most rewarding moments?

The messages we receive from individuals about how iFixit helped them. We’re taking people from a place of insecurity to a place of self-confidence. That’s really, really empowering.