How to keep your gadgets from choking the planet
Technologically speaking, the COVID-19 pandemic made Americans more connected than ever. From smart TVs and internet-enabled toys to game consoles, the average home today has 25 connected devices — more than twice as much as in 2019.
This profusion of technology comes at a cost: A gushing river of electronic waste. Gadgets are the fastest-growing category of trash, as well as the most polluting. Old devices are liable to leach toxic chemicals or catch fire. Recycling rates are dismal: Less than one-fifth of electronics is typically recycled every year.
"Globally, we're generating e-waste that weighs as much as 100 blue whales a day, and 80% to 81% of that is not going to be recycled," said Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of sustainability at iFixit, a community of repair enthusiasts.
Faced with this crisis, some major technology companies have taken steps to lessen the environmental impact of their products. After years of effectively encouraging planned obsolescence, Apple, Samsung and Google are letting customers fix some of their products, prolonging their lifespan. Critics say that's not enough, pushing companies to do more and for government regulators to hold their feet to the fire.
As consumers recognize Earth Day on Friday, they can take steps to reduce the impact of their tech — and save money to boot. Here's what environmental advocates suggest for making the most of your devices.
In looking at new devices, the first question should be whether to buy one at all. If you can avoid getting a new smartphone or laptop, either by repairing an older model or installing a few upgrades to get another year of use out of an existing gadget, do so, experts advise.
"The vast majority of a device's carbon footprint comes from the manufacturing process," Chamberlain said.
Americans buy about 161 million new phones every year, according to a recent study from U.S. PIRG. If everyone kept a smartphone for an additional year instead of upgrading, it would reduce emissions as much as taking 636,000 cars off the road.
One major reason people replace their phones is to get more battery life. Replacing an older phone's battery is no longer as easy as it used to be, but it's still one way to extend the life of your device — and costs much less than buying a new one.
For instance, iFixit sells an iPhone 12 battery replacement kit for $50, a repair the site rates as moderately difficult. Independent repair stores can sometimes replace device batteries, too.
When buying a new gadget, research how easy it is to upgrade or repair — that could have a big effect on how long you keep it. iFixit grades smartphones, laptops and tablets based on how easy they are to repair, and provides crowdsourced manuals for many devices.
Note that some of those ratings could change soon now that some big tech companies are vowing to make it easier for people to get their products repaired. Apple has said consumers will be able to buy parts to do common repairs for the iPhone 12 and 13. Samsung in March announced a repair program for some Galaxy phones, and Google this month did the same for its Pixel phone. All are set to launch sometime this year.
Beware devices that use a lot of glue to hold components together instead of screws or snaps — that's a sign fixing it could be challenging.
Consumers can also seek out modular equipment, which is designed to be easy to take apart and customize. For example, the Framework laptop is a modular computer while the Fairphone aims to be a sustainable smartphone.
Flat-screen TVs are particularly problematic since they're often large and not built to last.
"We see so many flat-panel TVs it's depressing," said Amanda LaGrange, CEO of Tech Dump, a nonprofit in Minnesota's Twin Cities that refurbishes and recycles e-waste.
"Often people are buying them on a Black Friday, say, where some manufacturers, not all, are reducing the quality of the components. That's how they can make it cheaper."
To steer clear of the very cheapest options, LaGrange suggests that consumers check the model number of the TV they want. "See if it's sold at any other time of year. And if it's not, it's probably cheaper and then you can't affordably repair that item."
Tech Dump's twin organization, Tech Discounts, refurbishes used recent gadget models and sells them at a discount. Many nonprofits and online marketplaces do the same.
Consumers shouldn't shy away from used tech because they assume it won't perform as well, said Amanda LaGrange said. Reputable retailers will do rigorous testing on refurbished stuff, and many will sell items with return policies and warranties comparable to that of new gadgets.
"Once someone buys a refurbished electronic, people are much more likely to do it again. It's like buying a used pair of jeans for the first time," she said. "People think, 'Why was I throwing money away?'"
When it's time to dispose of old electronics, give them a second life by passing them along to a friend or donating them to a recycling or refurbishing center. Many of these centers offer a financial bonus by letting someone write off the value of their donation.
But they should do it fast, instead of letting old technology pile up, counsels LaGrange. She refers to the "pile of denial," where non-working electronics collect in a basement or garage for years. By the time someone donates them, they're often too old to be refurbished and can only be tossed.
"If you brought in your iPhone X that's sitting in a drawer now, it could easily be refurbished," she said. "If you wait six more years, it's not so easy."
Despite a growing national movement around ensuring that consumers can repair their devices — an issue that is overwhelmingly popular and that has bipartisan support in Congress — no state has yet codified that right into law.
That needs to change to cut down on e-waste, said Nathan Proctor, head of the Right to Repair campaign at the Public Interest Research Group. "In terms of winning the argument, winning the public, we're in a really strong position" he said. "In terms of actually fixing stuff, we're just getting started."
Currently, nine states are considering bills strengthening consumers' right to repair. In addition, three bills have been introduced in Congress that would ease repair rights for cars, electronics and tractors.
Pressure from the Biden administration, which has pushed for consumers' rights to repair, is a major reason that tech companies have softened their anti-repair stance, in Proctor's view. But making that change permanent requires putting new laws on the books.
"These companies, their job is to make money. And it's our jobs as citizen of this country to make sure they do it without hurting consumers and hurting the planet," Proctor said.