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Reduce, reuse, recycle: Everyone knows the three Rs of sustainability. But at iFixit, we talk a lot about a fourth R—one that people often forget: Repair.
In case you haven’t heard of us, iFixit is the free repair manual for everything. Our goal is to teach everyone how to repair the stuff they own—whether it’s laptops, snowboards, toys, or clothes. For the past decade, we’ve been taking apart complicated gizmos like iPhones, Xboxes, and MacBook Pros and telling the world how to fix them. We do it because most large electronics companies don’t release repair instructions to their customers.
I’m sure those policies make sense to manufacturers of electronics. After all, helping consumers fix the busted screen of an out-of-warranty iPad or reverse the Yellow Light of Death on a PS3 doesn’t net Apple or Sony any new sales. But repair-unfriendly policies certainly don’t make sense to me: those policies hurt customers and they hurt the environment.
Pound-for-pound, electronics are the most complicated objects human beings know how to make. They are also one of the most environmentally damaging. A single cell phone, for example, is composed of between 500 to 1,000 different components — many sourced from countries that aren’t well-known for safe mining practices, human rights, or environmental practices.
The demand for quicker, thinner gadgets has also increased the demand for raw materials. In the last 10 years, iron ore production has increased by 180%, cobalt by 165%, and lithium by 125%. And getting those materials out of the ground has environmental consequences. Mining and producing just an ounce of gold, for example, creates approximately 80 tons of waste.
Although we’ve been told otherwise, there is no such thing as a “green” cell phone or computer. And while recycling your old electronics is certainly better than just throwing them into the trash, it’s still not quite good enough. At the moment, many of the components in electronics can’t yet be separated out for recycling — including the rare earth elements that are so difficult and damaging to mine.
Repair is better than recycling. This Earth Day, add “repair” back into your sustainability checklist. To help get you started, we’ve compiled a few smartphone repairs you can do at home. (Most of these repairs require specialty electronics tools like plastic opening tools and a set of precision screwdrivers, which you can find at electronics stores like Radio Shack or on iFixit.) For our repair list, we’ve focused on Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S line, because they are the most popular phones in the US, but you can find many more phone repair guides on iFixit.
Batteries run down; it’s what they do. And if you rely on your iPhone to manage your life, you could suck the life out of your battery in one or two years. If that iPhone just isn’t holding its charge anymore, consider swapping out the battery instead of upgrading to a whole new phone. iPhones don’t technically feature a user-replaceable battery. In fact, Apple uses a proprietary screw, called the pentalobe, to keep people out of their phones’ innards. But with a specialty pentalobe screwdriver, a new battery, and the right directions (you can find all three on iFixit), you can replace the old battery in an iPhone in less than an hour.
Smartphones are easy to drop, and they are notoriously easy to break. So if you’ve got butterfingers (like me), you might rest a little easier knowing that you can replace the display of an iPhone on your own. Replacing a bum screen with a brand new display assembly on a iPhone 5, 5c, or 5s is actually a little easier than replacing the battery. If you’ve got a steady hand and a prying tool like a spudger, you can do it.
Samsung is actually one of the few remaining smartphone makers that doesn’t seal batteries into their phones. User-replaceable batteries are key to lengthening the life of electronics like cell phones. If your cell phone stops holding a charge, you can replace the battery on a Galaxy S series phone in under five minutes. Indeed, Samsung made replacing the battery so easy, it’s hard to even classify it as a repair. Just pry off the back panel, pull out the old battery, pop in a new one, and snap the phone back together again. You don’t even need a screwdriver.
You’ll need a precision screwdriver set and some specialty prying tools (so as not to damage the phone’s internal components) for this repair, but replacing the display assembly on an S II, S III, and S4 is still well within most people’s capabilities. If you just bought a new Galaxy S5, though, you’ll want to be extra careful with that shiny new touchscreen. The newest generation is significantly less repairable than its predecessors, which means that a broken screen on the S5 will be much harder to repair.
Have stuff around the house that needs repairing? Check out iFixit.com for free repair manuals. If you’re stuck, need help troubleshooting, or need advice about a repair, just ask the iFixit community. There are lots of repair experts around the world who have fixed what you’re fixing—and they love to help.
And if you know how to fix something we don’t, take a few pictures and start a repair guide of your own.
So this Earth Day, celebrate the four Rs of sustainability: Open up that junk drawer or dig through the garage, find something broken, and try to fix it. Because repair is good for you, and it’s good for the planet.
Reduce. Reuse. Repair. Recycle.
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This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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