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Right to repair: What it means and why it matters to you

The right to repair movement has been causing a stir in politics and tech. Here is everything you need to know.
Written by Sabrina Ortiz, Editor
Deconstructed smartphone with tools around it on a blue background
Image: Thanasis/Getty Images

What is right to repair trying to solve?

When devices like phones, tablets and laptops are damaged or break down, it can often be very complicated and costly to get them fixed. It can mean going through a particular supplier nominated by the manufacturer, and often the fix is so expensive that it's easier to simply buy a new device. Fixing it yourself is nearly impossible because spare parts are very hard to come by -- as are the manuals and tools needed to fix even the simplest of problems -- or the components are glued in place.

That's a problem for everyone. 

Owning devices is a lot more expensive because cheap repairs aren't possible. Lack of repairability means smartphones or laptops end up being abandoned, perhaps just because one small and cheap component has failed. That decision adds to e-waste and increases pressure on the supply of rare materials. 

One of the major objectives of right to repair laws is to make repairs much more accessible to all of us. This shift would help consumers save money by getting their devices serviced where they prefer and, most importantly, preserving their products for as long as they can. And the aim is to make sure the right to repair goes beyond laptops and phones to as many devices as possible -- even something as huge as a tractor.

One major issue the legislation is trying to tackle is reducing e-waste. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), consumers and businesses discarded 2.37 million tons of e-waste including televisions, computers, and cell phones in 2009. By having people fix their own phones or find more affordable options, people won't have to dispose of their current products as often, reducing e-waste. Longer lasting hardware, and less e-waste makes right to repair a compelling argument for many.

What do right to repair laws refer to?

In the United States, most states have considered some form of a right to repair law, although the first one was passed last year in New York. Often titled the 'Fair Repair Act', these laws refer to the responsibility that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have to provide consumers with the materials necessary to repair their products. These laws would obligate OEMs to make parts accessible to consumers for repairs, distribute manuals, and remove obstacles for both self-repairs and third-party repair servicers. 

How does e-waste affect the environment? Why should e-waste be reduced?

E-waste is toxic for the environment and can harm living species -- including humans. The materials used to make electronic devices contain metals and chemicals that are hazardous to human health, such as beryllium, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc, according to the EPA

Also: Right to repair move gets backing from President Biden

E-waste is often transferred to developing countries that practice crude recycling techniques -- such as acid leaching and cable burning -- in attempts to recover valuable substances, including gold, silver, copper, and other valuable metals, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Workers in the informal recycling sectors are heavily exposed to toxic substances, which severely impacts their health. Furthermore, women and children are the most susceptible to these contaminants. Nearly 12.9 million women work in the informal recycling sector, which puts themselves and their unborn children at risk, and more than 18 million children and adolescents engage in those centers to some capacity, according to the World Health Organization

Which states have right to repair laws?

As seen on the map below, only two states have actually passed a right to repair law -- New York and Colorado. Each state's laws and protections are slightly different. 

States with right to repair laws map
Source: repair.org

New York became the first state to pass a right to repair bill in December 2022, which will go into effect in July 2023. The bill says that OEMs must provide materials, such as parts, manuals, and diagrams, to owners and independent repair providers to facilitate their repairs. 

However, the bill came in for some criticism since it was modified so that OEMs do not have to publicly share any passwords, security codes or materials to override security features.

The modified, passed bill reads: "This agreement eliminates the bill's original requirement calling for original equipment manufacturers to provide to the public any passwords, security codes or materials to override security features, and allows for original equipment manufacturers may provide assemblies of parts rather than individual components when the risk of improper installation heightens the risk on injury."

Who's supporting the right to repair movement?

The Right to Repair movement has been supported by several organizations, including The Repair Association and PIRG. These organizations spread awareness about the issue and inform people on how to advocate for legislation at both a state and federal level. 

How can I benefit from right to repair?

In addition to the positive effects that the legislation has on the environment, right to repair laws ultimately will save individuals money. Often, repairs at the OEM can be costly and inconvenient, since you need to seek out a service provider. 

With options to repair a product yourself or bring it to a third party, you can compare different servicing fees and locations -- and ultimately pick the one that is best for you. The ability to fix your device at your own convenience should also make you more confident about getting your device repaired in the first place and hopefully extend its life. 

What are the arguments against right to repair?

The major argument against right to repair laws is user safety. Opponents argue that, despite having access to a manual and parts, people can still get injured by performing a repair that they are not trained to do. Electronics have lots of intricate components that can be difficult to navigate if you have never seen them before, especially when they are sharp or combustible. Manipulating these parts can result in a serious injury. Another argument opponents make is that, even if you attempt to repair a device using your resources, you might fail and make the problem even worse. 

How are companies responding to the right to repair movement?

As consumers become more interested in repairing their own hardware, tech companies are gradually making additions to their repair programs that can help them to do that. For example, Samsung has implemented different servicing options to improve users' experiences with repairs. The first is a self-repair service that partners with iFixit to provide customers with kits and videos, so that they can fix their devices from the comfort of their own homes. 

If you feel more comfortable having your phone repaired by a technician, Samsung offers a Beyond Boundaries program, which sends technicians to your house for at-home repairs as long as you live within a four-hour radius of a Samsung care center. There's also a Samsung Travel Techs program that dispatches technicians to customers outside the radius. 

Also: Samsung just extended its at-home self-repair service to laptops

At the beginning of January, John Deere signed an agreement that allows farmers to fix their equipment closer to home -- a big win for the right to repair movement. Farmers are often faced with the inconvenience of having to find an OEM service provider to fix their large equipment that is miles away from their farms, making it extremely difficult to get anything fixed. The intent of the agreement is to provide farmers with the tools and software needed to repair John Deere equipment. 

Also: New John Deere agreement is a win for the 'right to repair' movement

In April, Apple announced that it was launching a self-repair store that sells parts and tools necessary to fix a problem. Customers will also have access to repair manuals found on Apple's website. 

Lastly, companies are coming up with sustainable designs for their products that make repairs more intuitive. A great example is the Framework Chromebook, which has completely customizable hardware, allowing you to change any aspect of the hardware -- such as parts, components, batteries, ports, and more -- at any time. 

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