By Jessica Zimmer
Electronics recyclers encounter numerous obstacles in their efforts to refurbish and resell electronics, but they hope to work with manufacturers, not against them, to achieve mutual goals.
Advances in electronic product design have given the public astonishingly small, fast, and powerful digital tools in the past few years. These advances have given electronics recyclers something else, too—headaches. Electronic devices can present numerous barriers to repair or refurbishment as well as to recycling. It’s not necessarily intentional, says Billy Johnson, ISRI’s chief lobbyist and liaison to ISRI’s Electronics Division. “We understand [original equipment manufacturers] were not designing with recycling first and foremost. Yet when a product gets broken, it comes to us.”
Recyclers and electronics manufacturers have a symbiotic relationship, Johnson says. The OEMs often hire recyclers to perform warranty repairs or ensure their products are recycled in ways that maximize material value, control hazards, and minimize waste. As OEMs have received negative publicity for some practices—their use of hazardous substances, batteries that catch fire, and so forth—and as they have become more environmentally and socially aware, they have become more receptive to recycler suggestions, Johnson says. “We’ve opened up a lot of lines of communication with them that we haven’t had in the past. … We’re telling them, ‘We want to help you. How can we figure out some answers?’ We can help OEMs create devices which are more recyclable and repairable.”
Increasingly the two groups are trying to work together to resolve these issues. This is good for the OEMs’ image, and it’s essential for many recyclers’ bottom lines. With electronic products getting smaller and containing fewer metals—especially precious metals—“we’re seeing the value proposition change,” explains Darrell Kendall, executive director of the Recycling Industry Operating Standard, a management system ISRI founded for quality, environment, health, and safety management in recycling operations. “The scrap value of a phone is less than a couple of dollars,” he says. “If you wipe the data, unlock a phone, and refurbish it, you can sell it for between $250 and $300. Secondhand phones may have another five years of life. Recyclers are looking to have a fair shake of maximizing the value and minimizing the cost of repair.”
Remaining barriers to repair and refurbishment are physical, informational, and technological. Recyclers say they use patience and creativity to surmount these obstacles, and they work with ISRI to advocate for solutions, whether voluntary or through laws or regulations. While a nascent right-to-repair movement in the United States also is working toward increasing everyone’s access to parts, repair information, and increased legal rights to repair and modify electronic products, ISRI and some recyclers draw a distinction between that group’s goals and those of professional recyclers.
Electronics manufacturers say they make design decisions to innovate or improve performance. In comments Microsoft submitted to a Federal Trade Commission-hosted event in July called “Nixing the Fix: A Workshop on Repair Restrictions,” it stated that design choices “that incidentally impact reparability can also be innovative responses to consumer preferences and may form the basis on which companies compete. … For example, one company may choose to affix a battery in a certain way in order to maximize its size and power, enabling longer device run time; while another company may make batteries easier to replace, which might require a smaller battery, resulting in shorter run time.”
Kendall notes that “when [electronics manufacturers] glue or wedge a battery in, or build components around or on top of it, they’re showing that they think this is the best place for the battery.” They use glue and other materials in ways that reflect their focus “on creating a quality product they can sell for a maximum profit.” They also respond to customer demands, from batteries that don’t come loose when the device is dropped to creating a “glass sandwich” so a phone is waterproof, stylish, and light, he says.
Glued-down parts, fragile parts, and thin separators between battery components present significant challenges for recyclers, however. Excess glue makes it hard to open up the device and reach its components, particularly the motherboard, without causing damage. Fragile plastic and aluminum parts inside a device can bend or break off during repair. “The shinier, the smaller, the prettier it is, the harder it is to take apart,” says Jim Levine, president of Regency Technologies (Twinsburg, Ohio). “While [design for recycling] has come a long way with certain products, like LED TVs, smaller devices such as cellphones, tablets, and wearables have become more of a challenge than ever before. Working on these devices in a safe and effective manner takes training, supervision, and continuous change based on the design and material composition of particular devices,” he says. The careful work this requires increases labor costs, recyclers say. It can take 15 to 20 minutes to get a device open, which means one employee could end up working on fewer than 30 units a day, one recycler notes.
“It’s a real concern when the processor chip is glued to the motherboard” in phones and tablets, for example, says Adam Shine, vice president of Sunnking (Brockport, N.Y.). “It makes it very difficult and labor-intensive to process these units.” Typically, you have to heat the device to loosen the glue, he explains, then you have the “arduous process” of removing the chip or other glued-down components without damaging them or anything around them. “It presents challenges to replace a battery, for instance, and could lead to further damage, requiring the phone or tablet to be recycled when it could otherwise be repurposed.”
Recyclers address physical repair difficulties by hiring skilled technicians, training them extensively, and setting safety rules for the workplace. They also require technicians to watch repair videos and repeat certain tasks. “Each one of our team members sits through a rigorous training course,” says Chris Ko, managing partner of ER2 (Mesa, Ariz.). The company’s certifications testify to its controls for quality, environment, health, and safety, he notes. “We’re ISO:9001, ISO:14001, and OHSAS:18001 certified. We have videos, pictures, and physical product demos in the workplaces available as well.”
Recyclers that have a contract to repair devices for brand owners can get repair instructions from the product’s source. When they can’t access official repair instructions, they sometimes turn to the Internet, they say. The online repair clearinghouse iFixit has been helpful in providing guides, tools, and forums, Shine says. “It’s given us much more access to manufacturer manuals and repair guides. We also go to YouTube for repair videos.”
When it comes to finding parts, professional recyclers that handle thousands or millions of electronic products have one advantage: They often can harvest reusable parts from the end-of-life products they handle. That’s what happens at Sims Recycling Solutions (Roseville, Calif.), says Doug Buffenbarger, global product sales manager. Sims builds a “bank” of original parts recovered from disassembled devices, he says. HOBI International (Dallas) does that as well, says Craig Boswell, president and co-founder. HOBI also buys parts from online sellers, but it puts in a lot of effort to make sure the parts are high-quality, he notes. It tests 100% of the parts it recovers for reuse and a sample of those it purchases new.
Technological barriers can prevent otherwise functioning mobile devices from being erased, refurbished, and resold. Security locks like those in Apple’s “Find My iPhone” feature allow owners to remotely disable, or “brick,” a device that’s been lost or stolen. Devices with that feature activated can legitimately end up at a recycling facility: The owner might replace the device and then later find and recycle the one that went missing, for example. And some device owners wrongly believe using that feature to erase a device is necessary to ensure data security when they recycle old devices. Unfortunately, when recyclers receive bricked devices, it’s impossible to disassociate the device from the owner to clear the data and allow it to function again, Boswell says. The same is true when the device is locked to a specific cellphone carrier, such as AT&T or Verizon. Boswell would like the carriers to aid recyclers with bulk unlocking.
Regulatory changes related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act have reduced some technological barriers to the repair and resale of electronic devices. The U.S. Copyright Office, which must review the DMCA’s provisions every three years, had previously approved “unlocking” some used wireless devices from their original network provider and “jailbreaking,” or using third-party software (such as data erasure software) on these devices. In 2018, it expanded the range of devices it’s legal to unlock or jailbreak to cover not just cellphones and tablets, but also mobile hot spots, wearables, and voice-activated devices like smart speakers. Also notable was its expansion of these permissions, which previously applied only to used devices, to any “lawfully acquired” devices in those categories, whether new or used. ISRI and others had petitioned for that change to allow recyclers to refurbish and resell surplus new devices, such as those a manufacturer might want to retire when introducing a new model.
Some technology barriers remain, such as those that tie a device to a specific organization—for example, a university or company—and BIOS locks, which requires a user login to the computer’s basic input/output system before the machine will boot up. BIOS locks can be broken, but doing so limits the degree to which the recycler can customize the device, which is not acceptable to most clients, Ko says. Clients that sell him devices for refurbishment must provide the information to unlock them. “Many times devices are locked because the customer owes the carrier money. In that case, we go back to the client,” he says. Manufacturers and software security firms also can break enterprise and BIOS locks when the recycler has authorization from the device seller, but doing so costs additional time and money.
Right to reuse vs. right to repair
ISRI’s position on right to reuse, which the Board of Directors adopted in 2016, supports laws and regulations that allow recyclers to reuse and remarket electronic products. This includes policies that allow them to bypass technological protection measures (such as by unlocking and jailbreaking); give them access to repair manuals, parts, tools, and diagnostic software; and provide recyclers with the right to market used products without warranty.
ISRI’s support for right to reuse applies to professional recyclers, Johnson says. “If you’re a genuine recycler, even if you’re a one- to two-person shop, you have safety standards, liability insurance, and a business license. You’re in compliance with OSHA regulations and the Fair Labor Standards Act,” he says. Professional recyclers’ interests overlap with, but also differ from, the wider right-to-repair movement, which advocates for broader rights for anyone—device owners and third parties—to access repair manuals and parts and to legally open, repair, and modify devices. ISRI’s concern is that “individuals often don’t have the competencies nor the proper facilities to perform these processes safely,” Johnson says.
Currently, ISRI members’ goals are more closely aligned with those of the OEMs than with right-to-repair advocates, Johnson says. “OEMs don’t want a product to go on the market if it’s not in compliance” with regulatory requirements and quality-control standards, and recyclers want the devices they sell to meet those standards as well, he says. “Our recyclers repair devices in big factories, not in home kitchens. … We’re not sure the average person is qualified to fix the devices OEMs make.” For example, wireless devices must comply with Federal Communications Commission regulations for electromagnetic interference to ensure their signals don’t crowd out signals on the Emergency Alert System, he says.
Kendall notes that if customers and small repair operations have more access to devices, this might negatively impact the quality of products recyclers receive. Individuals who “Frankenstein” their devices, “altering the equipment to do different things than the purpose for which they were intended,” create “greater risk for the recycler that someone’s done something to mess up the phone’s function,” he says. This might include using substandard parts—with substandard batteries being the most worrisome.
Some right-to-repair legislation could force recyclers to share proprietary repair methods, Boswell adds. “We devised our own methods with our engineering team to repair devices more quickly and more safely [than other recyclers]. … There is a line where we cross into intellectual property.” He supports broader access to a limited amount of additional repair information when a repair can be done in a “straightforward fashion,” but not to more complex work. “For example, a customer shouldn’t be able to take a Tesla battery and make it into a power wall for their house. There’s a safety concern. Where does the liability fall?” One particular concern is the lithium-ion battery most devices contain. These batteries can explode if the thin plastic separator between the cathode and anode is breached. This poses a danger to anyone fixing a device without the proper training or safety precautions.
These recyclers differ as to what criteria should decide who gets greater access and information—in other words, who’s a professional recycler? Certification might be the best measure, Shine says. “Fly-by-night companies which haven’t invested in certification shouldn’t have access to manuals. There is a cost associated with doing things the right way.” Certification programs for electronics recyclers include the Responsible Recycling (R2) standard from Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (Hastings, Minn.), R2/RIOS, e-Stewards from the Basel Action Network (Seattle), and AAA certification for information destruction from the National Association for Information Destruction (Phoenix), in addition to the various ISO standards that apply to a wide range of businesses. Buffenbarger suggests that trade association membership or qualification from OEMs, such as becoming a Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher, might be worthwhile criteria as well.
Some professional recyclers are more supportive of the right-to-repair movement’s broader goals. “Anybody should be able to repair electronic products if they have the mind to do it,” Ko says. “We have to be better than the guy in the workshop. That’s our business.” Sims Recycling Solutions’ Buffenbarger agrees. “The interests of large recyclers and small repair shops are relatively closely aligned.” If the right-to-repair movement made gains, “that would make it easier for us to repair devices, too.”
As ISRI continues its dialogue with electronics manufacturers on how they can facilitate repair and recycling, Johnson emphasizes that ISRI members want to do repair properly, and OEMs feel pressure from their customers and shareholders to ensure their recycled products operate properly and safely. “Hopefully, with that pressure, together we should be able to make progress” on expanding recyclers’ right to reuse, he says.
Jessica Zimmer is a freelance writer based in Santa Rosa, Calif.