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Fixit culture is on the rise, but repair legislation faces resistance

Adam Savage, host of <em>Tested, </em>and right to repair advocate, shows off the lathe he's fixing at his San Francisco workshop.
Chloe Veltman/NPR
Adam Savage, host of Tested, and right to repair advocate, shows off the lathe he's fixing at his San Francisco workshop.

Americans are responsible for throwing out more stuff than any other nation in the world. According to the Public Interest Research Group, people in this country generate more than 12% of the planet's trash, though we represent only 4% of the global population.

"We keep going at this pace and we'll reach the heat death of the earth in a few hundred years," said Adam Savage, the leader and host of Tested, a popular YouTube channel and website aimed at makers, and an outspoken advocate for repairing the things we own rather than trashing them. "So time is of the essence."

Throwing things away comes with an environmental cost. Manufacturing processes and decomposing products in landfills emit significant levels of climate warming pollution. Some materials, like plastic, never decompose. Savage said it's time human beings reminded themselves that throwaway culture is a relatively new phenomenon. It started about a hundred years ago with the rise of mass manufacturing.

"We have been repairers and restorers for millennia longer than we've been profligate thrower outer of things," Savage said, as he worked on mending the hulking wood-and-metal-shaping lathe that occupies a corner of the professional tinkerer's cavernous workshop.

Appetite for repair on the rise

Most of us don't have Savage's drive for Extreme DIY.

Nevertheless, the appetite for fixing things is on the rise. From patching jeans to replacing phone screens, U.S. consumers are showing an increased interest in prolonging the life of the things they own, rather than getting rid of them.

This points to a shift in how Americans are defining what it means to be a responsible shopper as global consumption continues to contribute to climate change.

Online how-to videos are getting hundreds of thousands of hits. And people are flocking to community repair workshops in cities across the country. Those started to take off around 2009, with organizations like Fixit Clinic and Repair Cafe now offering well over a hundred repair events in the U.S. each year.

San Francisco resident Daniel Leong poses with a bike be brought to a San Francisco Public Library repair day
/ Chloe Veltman/NPR
Chloe Veltman/NPR
San Francisco resident Daniel Leong poses with a bike be brought to a San Francisco Public Library repair day

Daniel Leong was among the crowd attending one such event at the San Francisco Public Library. The San Francisco resident has brought two bikes along for the volunteer bike repairers to repair. His wife's has a flat tire; his son's, malfunctioning brakes.

"We don't know much about repairing bikes," said Leong. "We just ride every so often."

A basic bike tune-up in San Francisco can cost well over $100. Leong said he's a fan of fixit days because the service is free. But it's about more than the unbeatable price.

"It also gives us an opportunity to learn more about bicycles and a chance to see how they're fixed," he said.

The library's clinics, which are held in collaboration with the San Francisco Department of the Environment, currently provide repair services for bikes and clothing, with sessions on small appliance repairs planned for the future. People can bring items in for repair by teams of volunteer experts, as well as pick up repair skills for themselves.

"We of course wanna reach as many people as we can and bring them into this environmental climate conversation," said Shawn Rosenmoss, a senior environmental specialist with the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

Rosenmoss is heartened not only by the public's interest in mending and fixing things, but also by some manufacturers' efforts to promote the repair of their own products, like Patagonia and Levi's.

But Rosenmoss said some things, like bikes and clothing, are easier to fix than others — particularly things that contain computer chips. Where devices such as phones, microwave ovens and cars are concerned, Rosenmoss said it will take more than getting people to watch DIY videos and attend fixit clinics to save the planet.

"There's this cultural shift, and then there is the policy work that has to be done," Rosenmoss said. "They have to go hand in hand."

An upswing in "Right to Repair" legislation

What Rosenmoss means by policy work is legislation that empowers people to fix things themselves or do so through a repair provider of their choice.

So-called "Right to Repair" legislation is focused on getting manufacturers to provide consumers and independent repair companies access to their parts, tools and service information.

The Repair Association, a consumer advocacy group, has spent more than a decade pushing manufacturers to make it easier for people to fix their products. Its executive director, Gay Gordon-Byrne, said the repair offerings corporations typically provide are either inconvenient or expensive, and sometimes both.

"They are not in the business of fixing stuff," Gordon-Byrne said. "They would rather your stuff falls apart and dies and you have to go back to the store."

Gordon-Byrne said mounting pressure from groups like hers, as well as the growing interest in fixit culture, have started to force reluctant manufacturers to make repairs more accessible.

Dozens of Right to Repair bills are working their way through the legislative process, and have passed in a few states. In New York, starting later this year, for instance, electronic devices will have to be repairable by law.

"So Apple, as an example, will have to be selling parts and tools and providing diagnostic functions that they didn't wanna provide," Gordon-Byrne said.

Resistance against Right to Repair

But these bills face stiff opposition.

The New York bill, for example, was originally meant to encompass everything from home appliances to farm equipment. By the time the state's governor signed it into law late last year, its scope had been reduced to just small consumer electronics.

"Our concerns are that the bills are going to mandate that manufacturers provide unvetted third parties with sensitive diagnostic information tools and parts without requiring any of the critical consumer protections that are afforded by authorized repair networks like training and competency certification," said David Edmonson, vice president of state policy and government relations for TechNet, a tech sector trade association that represents companies like Apple, Google and Toyota.

Edmonson said nevertheless, manufacturers are listening to their customers. For instance, companies like Apple and Samsung recently expanded their self-repair programs and network of independent service providers.

"This is something that is responsive to consumer demand and consumer needs," Edmonson said.

At Fix My Phone SF, a neighborhood electronics repair store in San Francisco, owner Michael Ghadieh said he's been fixing smartphones since they came on the market around 15 years ago.

"At the beginning, parts were difficult to obtain," Ghadieh said. "Now that's much easier of course."

But Ghadieh said he's seen a dip in his phone repair business over the past year, owing to manufacturers offering ever-more tempting deals to customers to trade-in their old products for shiny new ones.

"It's kind of still complicated," Ghadieh said. "If you buy your phone, it's your phone. You paid for it. And they should have no right to tell you what to do with it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.