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Tech by VICE

A New Generation of Students Is Teaching Us How to Reduce E-Waste

In colleges and universities across the United States, students are taking classes on how to repair our electronics that normally end up as e-waste.

by Madeleine Gregory
Aug 23 2019, 12:35pm

Image: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a decade, the right to repair movement has been quietly fomenting in technical writing classes at universities around the world.

At 80 participating colleges and universities, teachers work with iFixit—a company that provides repair toolkits for many consumer electronics—to train students to repair electronics and help others do the same at a time when device manufacturers are making it more difficult to do just that.

In the course of the class, students take electronics apart and put them back together in order to build repair manuals so that people can fix their devices instead of throwing them out. iFixit puts these manuals on their website—tens of thousands, so far—and their advice reaches millions of people.

“The education program was born out of a need to give students more hands-on tech education,” said Marty Rippens, who helps run the iFixit Technical Writing Project. “Getting engineering students to think about the longevity of products is a sea change.”

Then, iFixit posts the repair manuals on its website for the public to use. The repair guides they produce get traction—1.5 million users a month engage with the guides, Brittany McCrigler, who also helps run the program, said. Students have created more than 30,000 guides on 6,000 consumer products, helping over 60 million people repair their devices.

Before they make these guides, students have to understand why so many consumer electronics end up in landfills or burning in incinerators around the world. Why on earth are we wasting so much stuff? The answer to that question largely comes down to the companies making the devices we use everyday.

Consumer electronics giants like Apple or Samsung churn out new phones and updates on a monthly basis. However, there’s one thing you’ll seldom find on their websites: a repair manual for your old device. In fact, many device manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure that repairing devices yourself or through a third party is incredibly difficult, and sometimes illegal. AirPods, for example, can't be repaired because they are glued together; their lithium-ion batteries makes throwing them in the trash a non-starter; they can't be easily recycled, either.

“Getting engineering students to think about the longevity of products is a sea change.”

If your phone breaks and there’s no instructions anywhere on how to repair it—and no local businesses with the ability to—you have to subject yourself to an expensive official repair or simply get a new one.

On one of the class's first days, students watch a video about electronic waste. The clip shows that happens to the scraps of our old devices after we ship them to other countries. Computers, cell phones, and tablets are all up in flames as people tend to the fires and breathe in the poisonous smoke to try to extract the valuable raw materials. Over three quarters of our electronics will end up in e-waste dumps like the one in the video.

After watching the video, the students get the chance to do something that few college students do: they actually help to solve the problem they just learned about.

iFixit provides the students with a device—anything from a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, to a KitchenAid appliance, to a washing machine. The students work in groups to pull apart the products and identify common problems. Then they solve those problems, creating a step-by-step guide with pictures, explaining exactly what they did.

iFixit provides the curriculum and the devices to participating universities. They also help edit the repair guides, working with the students online throughout the class. The course is designed to help combat what the iFixit team calls 'Fixophobia:' aversion to fixing devices for fear of breaking them.

“It’s scary to take apart things, especially things that are really expensive,” said Arielle Sampson, an aerospace engineering student who took the class last fall at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, right down the road from iFixit’s headquarters.

Last fall, Sampson and her fellow students took apart a Samsung Galaxy S8 Active, a phone that hit stores a year earlier in 2017. As a new and popular phone at the time, repair guides for this device were particularly in demand. The team stripped the phone down, taking pictures of every step and building repair guides for repairing or replacing the battery, the cameras, the headphone jack, and more.

The assignment was to make five to seven repair guides, but the team made eleven, according to Sampson’s teammate Erik Mauk.

Mauk had previously worked at an Apple Genius Bar, so he felt more comfortable than most taking apart electronics. Aside from the technical writing skills, he said that the part of the class that really stuck with him was understanding what happens when products aren’t recycled.

“I didn’t realize the severity of it. Instead of having responsible dealers taking back in their materials and keeping it a closed loop, you’re throwing it all out,” Mauk said. “It’s pretty horrendous. It’s toxic to the people there and to the environment.”

By showing students how unsustainable our current system of electronics manufacturing is, iFixit hopes to push future engineers to design better, more recyclable products. That begins with realizing what’s wrong with our current system.

“You start to ask: do we really need adhesive?” Wyatt Johnson, who teaches the iFixit class at Maricopa Community Colleges, said. “Does my phone really need to be two or three millimeters thinner when the first thing I do when I buy it is put a case on it?”

McCrigler said that the program aims to pull engineering out of the theoretical, linking it back to the material product. She wants to pose the question to students: “If you were putting this thing together, what would you have done differently?”

That large-scale perspective shift starts at home, with the way that students and teachers in the technical writing class engage with their own products. When they take apart a product and get over their own fixophobia, a broken iPhone no longer feels like the phone’s death sentence.

“My laptop and my phone are both old, but if I can use them for another year, why not?” Johnson said. “When you pull back the curtain on electronic waste, you wonder if you really want to be part of that.”

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