Gay Gordon-Byrne: Why do big manufacturers prevent you from repairing your own stuff? Manufacturers intentionally make their products hard to fix. Right-to-repair advocate Gay Gordon-Byrne fights for laws to stop companies from monopolizing repairs and let people fix their own stuff.

Gay Gordon-Byrne: Why do big manufacturers prevent you from repairing your own stuff?

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Getting a fancy new phone or computer can feel so exciting, like you have a super power, until it inevitably slows down, freezes or stops working all together. It is so aggravating. But there are some people who actually find it thrilling if their stuff stops working.

GAY GORDON-BYRNE: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Fixing things is a puzzle. I just find it enormously satisfying.

ZOMORODI: This is Gay Gordon-Byrne. Gay does not have the latest iPhone.

GORDON-BYRNE: I think I have an iPhone 8.

ZOMORODI: OK. So how old is your phone, then?

GORDON-BYRNE: I don't know how many years it was in use before I bought it. I bought it two years ago used.

ZOMORODI: What about your laptop that you work on?

GORDON-BYRNE: Pretty sure that's about 5 years old.

ZOMORODI: Have you ever needed to fix it?

GORDON-BYRNE: Yeah, several times. It was overheating. And I suspected I needed a new fan, so I ordered a fan. I opened it up, saw the fan was clogged with cat hair.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: Gross.

GORDON-BYRNE: I've also had to replace some keys on my keyboard. I've replaced the battery. I just enjoyed every minute of it to see how these things work.

ZOMORODI: So Gay is unusual. Don't feel badly if you've never pulled apart your laptop because the companies who manufacture our products, they purposely make it hard for us to fix them.

GORDON-BYRNE: When people started getting personal computing equipment and cellphones and things like that, they were told, these things are so complicated and so difficult. Only the manufacturer is capable of making these repairs. And people largely bought into that whole idea.

Look at all the old companies that used to be in our towns. There was always an appliance repair shop. There was a TV repair shop. There was a computer repair shop. Those places are gone. And they're gone not because people didn't want to fix stuff, but because they can't repair things if they can't get the essential parts and tools. And as you can see, with the success of companies such as Apple, they have made a killing by making it impossible to repair without help from the Apple store.

ZOMORODI: Gay worked in the tech industry for decades, and this corporate behavior ticked her off. So in 2013, she founded the Digital Right to Repair Coalition.

GORDON-BYRNE: And because that's a mouthful, we are also known as repair.org.

ZOMORODI: Their mission...

GORDON-BYRNE: It's to fight for repair-friendly legislation, standards, regulations and policies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: When I first heard it, I was like, what do you mean the right to repair? That's like the right to fix something. Well, duh. Yes. I mean, but what you're saying is we are at a point where we need the law to tell these companies that we should be allowed to repair the things that we buy, right? When you first started talking about the phrase, what was the response from lawmakers, from manufacturers? What did they think?

GORDON-BYRNE: Oh, they had exactly the same reaction you did. They said, what is that? And we were able to explain it mostly in the context of cars because everybody understood that they need to be able to go to the local mechanic. And we say, well, those problems exist now for everything else. We are stuck with whatever the manufacturer feels like doing because we don't have the consumer protection laws to require them to do what we need them to do. People need to fix their stuff. And if they can't, there are some really bad consequences.

ZOMORODI: Reduce, reuse, recycle - since the '70s, that's been the slogan for the environmentally conscious. But today, we often feel unsure if our daily habits make any difference at all. Are the items we toss in the recycling bin really recycled? Why are we getting new phones and laptops rather than fixing them? And does clean energy or eating sustainably truly have to be a political issue? Well, on today's show, ideas that put a twist on reducing, reusing and recycling and could upend entire industries. We'll meet people working to radically change what we consume and what we see as disposable. Let's get back to Gay Gordon-Byrne.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GORDON-BYRNE: If we are going to have any control over our e-waste problem, we have to talk about repair.

ZOMORODI: Here she is on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GORDON-BYRNE: Back in 2013, the EPA estimated that the average U.S. household already owned 28 digitally driven gizmos and gadgets. It was everything from garage door openers and hot tub controls to smart toasters. If we just do a little math and multiply 28 times our roughly 123 million households, we come up with a pretty staggering 3 1/2 billion pieces of e-waste that don't belong in our landfills, and they are costly and difficult to put back as raw materials.

When we look a little more closely what's even possible with recycling, I think we've been ignoring some really ugly truths. By the time a laptop or a refrigerator or even an electric toothbrush gets in our hands, almost all of the environmental damage has already been done - all the costs of mining and refining and smelting and transportation. And we don't see these costs when we go to the store. And we don't see the human costs of terrible labor conditions and exposure to toxic materials. So fixing more and throwing away less just makes sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Let's talk about where we are then in terms of the law and legislation.

GORDON-BYRNE: The law says that they're not supposed to be monopolizing repair - they do. So more enforcement would be helpful. But enforcement is not the same as making a requirement that they sell parts and tools. And that can only be done in states because states have the power of general business law. And states can say, Mr. Manufacturer, if you're going to do business in my state, you must do X, Y and Z. And those laws are very powerful, and they work. There was a successful wheelchair right-to-repair bill that we finally got passed in Colorado.

ZOMORODI: Wait, why would you not have the right to repair your own wheelchair?

GORDON-BYRNE: Because they won't sell you the parts. It's a ridiculous situation where the wheelchair manufacturer says, I can't sell you a battery until, like, three months from now. And then meanwhile, you're sitting in a chair, and you can't move. That's why it went through so quickly 'cause it's so absurd. But the same absurdity applies to all these other things.

ZOMORODI: The arguments that big manufacturers make to keep their customers from fixing their things - my understanding is that Apple has said you could hurt yourself. In other states, tech companies have argued that will create hubs for hackers. Are any of those things true? What are some of the reasons that you've heard?

GORDON-BYRNE: There are no reasons. There's only excuses. You are responsible for your own personal safety from the moment that you purchase something. That's in every contract I've ever seen, and I've spent 40 years in commercial contracting. The responsibility for safety and cybersecurity, by the way, transfers at the cash register.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I think a lot of people don't even know a world where they could take something to get fixed, right? They think, well, every two years I - my carrier says that I'm available for an upgrade. They go to the store and they get a new phone. Where does the old one go?

GORDON-BYRNE: The phones that are taken back in trade tend not to reappear on the used market. They tend to be shredded...

ZOMORODI: Oh.

GORDON-BYRNE: ...Or pulled apart very prematurely. And the parts that they're pulling out could be used for repairs, but that's not their business. Their business is to sell new phones. So that is what happens when a manufacturer controls a secondary market, is they want to keep as much used equipment off the market as possible.

ZOMORODI: You mentioned earlier that most repair shops have gone away. If we get the right to repair our stuff, would there even be enough people to repair them?

GORDON-BYRNE: So these jobs that have gone away will come back, and they will come back in droves because there's a heck of a lot more equipment out there that needs repair services. There's hundreds of thousands of people that have the capabilities and the qualifications. And there will be jobs and talents that will support a family because these are not low-level factory jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GORDON-BYRNE: They're great jobs, and they don't require an advanced degree. I'll give you an example. There's a charity in Minnesota called Tech Dump, and they take in donated electronics and then they hire adults that are hard to employ, many of whom are coming out of the criminal justice system. They train them to make repairs. They then take the repaired goods, sell them and use the proceeds to fund more training.

And secondary markets are why used equipment is so affordable because the used seller has to compete with new. So if a new gadget is $1,000, we expect a pretty big discount to buy that same item used. Let's start with 50%. So now we have an affordability capability that is central to crossing the digital divide.

We had 5 million students that went to virtual school this past year that didn't have enabling technology. And that's because parents and school districts couldn't buy new. We still have a lot of chip shortages, and these are going to be with us for a while. And I think we have to think very seriously about doing more repair, not just to make things last longer but also to be more resilient as an economy.

ZOMORODI: The work that you do, do you find that your supporters fall along predictable party lines?

GORDON-BYRNE: Actually, there's almost no partisan divide at all. It cuts across every possible socioeconomic, political or geographic line. I'd say the only real divide we seem to see is almost an age divide. I see that the older the legislator, the less familiar they are with, A, technology and, B, with the limitations of modern technology. The last kitchen remodel they did was 20 years ago. All of those appliances still work. But if they've done one in the past five years, they will have already experienced some pretty severe problems.

ZOMORODI: That's so depressing. You're saying that the newer your appliances are, the more likely they are to crap out sooner.

GORDON-BYRNE: Absolutely. You put a computer in a refrigerator, it's not going to last 20 years anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So bottom line - I need a new refrigerator or phone. What should I keep in mind?

GORDON-BYRNE: Buy the least high-tech product you can in a home appliance. Don't buy the one with the fancy screen on the outside 'cause the screen craps out way faster than the compressor. Don't buy the bells and whistles because they don't last, and they won't be supported. And one day, they might drop support on it altogether. And now, you've got to replace and reprogram your entire household.

So low tech, as low tech as you can get. I think we've been told that we want bright and shiny more so than we actually want bright and shiny - cellphones, tablets, whatever. People do want to buy things that will last. And repair is the way that you get to long, useful life of the product.

ZOMORODI: That's Gay Gordon-Byrne. She's the executive director and founder of repair.org. You can see her full talk at ted.com. Today on the show - Repair, Repurpose, Reimagine. We'll be right back.

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