Smartphones & Repairability

Almost everyone you know has a smartphone. 9 out of 10 Americans have one. Another fact is that we replace them every 2 years and most of them end up in landfills. Should we treat them as disposable devices? Shouldn’t they last longer?

It's more than just the trash they generate after being thrown away. The production of smartphones requires mining materials and shipping them to factories to produce the screen, the battery, the camera and other parts before shipping them to the store we buy from. All these activities emit carbon dioxide (CO2), leading to global warming, which disrupts ecosystems, causes extreme weather events, and threatens biodiversity. In fact, 80 percent of CO2 emissions occur in the production phase before we even use the smartphone. That is why the choices we make when smartphones break directly impact the environment.

Repairing all smartphones in Europe to extend their lifespan by just one more year, would result in a reduction of CO2 emissions equivalent to removing over a million cars off the roads. This is why smartphone repairability is important.

Many consumer organisations have asked smartphone producers, like Apple and Samsung, to make their products easier to repair so they could last longer. Because smartphones need to be regulated by laws, these consumer organisations have also asked legislators to create laws that promote repairability.

A smartphone can be more or less easy to repair. An easy repair would be you opening up a smartphone to replace the battery or a broken screen. A difficult repair would be of a smartphone that is glued, and you can’t open it up by yourself.

The ease of repairability can be measured. It is called an Index of Repairability, where a score of 10 means it is easily repairable and 0 impossible to repair. An Index of Repairability can score different aspects such as how difficult it is opening up the smartphone and replacing its parts, but also ordering the parts, waiting for them to arrive, as well as for how long you have access to software updates.

In the study, we compared the scores in two Indexes of Repairability, one made by iFixit, and another created through laws in France. iFixit is an online community of tech enthusiasts that teach others how they can repair their gadgets themselves. The law in France requires smartphone producers to display the repairability score next to the price tag. This way consumers know if a smartphone is easily repairable or not before buying them.

To compare the scores in the two Indexes of Repairability we selected from a group of smartphones. We chose the flagship models from Apple and Samsung because they are the ones that sell the most smartphones in the world. We also chose smartphones made by Fairphone, because it is a company committed to make repairable and upgradeable smartphones. The goal was to understand if the final score of repairability actually means that the smartphone is made to be easily repairable. If it scores high, then it has the potential to last longer, ultimately reducing the environmental impact associated with the short lifespan of smartphones.

In the study we found that a smartphone can have a high repairability score for many reasons. One of the reasons is that it is easy to disassemble parts, replace them and put them back together. However, a smartphone that is glued can still score high. As long as the producer repairs it fast and relatively cheaply, the smartphone can score high in the French system. It will not score high in iFixit, because it is not easily repairable by you, with normal tools like a screwdriver.

During the study, a few points for discussion were raised. One is that software updates may impact repair. An example of this can be replacing a battery yourself after buying it on a website, not from the producer. Or going to an independent repairer who reuses good parts from discarded smartphones. In these cases, the producer can block the functionality of the replaced battery. This fact raises questions about the balance between producer control and consumer rights when it comes to repairs.

The study highlights that the analysed Indexes of Repairability are different in nature and scope. iFixit focuses on self-repair, making information available to consumers, but does not have the same power to push smartphone producers toward making smartphones easier to repair. On the other hand, legislation – in this case the law in France – has a more direct impact on how producers’ approach repairability. The legislation pushes smartphone producers to make repair manuals available for consumers, and to improve their repair services in order to have a high score in the Index of Repairability.

However, in order to push producers into making substantial change, that is, making smartphones easier to repair by consumers, the legislation must change the way they calculate the score. In the study we propose that the ease of opening up the smartphone and the number of steps to replace a part should count more in the final score. In this case, producers would have to make smartphones easier to repair for everyone, consumers and other repairers alike. Together with the other aspects, this will have an impact on making smartphones last longer, therefore contributing to reducing the environmental footprint of smartphones. Remember this the next time you go to repair your smartphone instead of rushing to buy a new one. Choosing repairability over disposability makes a lasting impact on our environment and our wallets.

Written By: Dr. Mário Barros

Academic Editor: Physicist

Non-Academic Editor: Retiree


Original Paper

• Title: Smartphone repairability indexes in practice:  Linking repair scores to industrial design features

• Authors: Mário Barros and Eric Dimla

• Journal: Journal of Industrial Ecology

• Date published: 24 April 2023

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