Google Needs to Talk About Repairability

In fact, any company launching a new phone does

At a press event on Tuesday, after taking some time to detail its investments into recycled materials and renewable energy, Google unveiled the shiny new Pixel 4 phone. The latest in the company’s flagship smartphones offers a new radar chip, a better Google Assistant, and two cameras. Absent from that announcement was any information on how to repair said phone when it starts to show its age.

It was a conspicuous void, because Google took pains to address its environmental impact at this event. According to Google, its Nest products will be built with 100% recycled plastic, shipping hardware products will be “100% carbon neutral,” and the company said it would invest $150 million in renewable energy products. That all sounds good.

But if a gadget maker wants to tout its environmental commitments, it should have a plan for how its products live and die. In the case of a device like the Pixel 4, that means repairability and recycling. Google didn’t address how you might fix your Pixel 4 if things go wrong — or if you’d simply like to extend its lifespan. (Microsoft, as a point of contrast, directly alluded to the repairability of the new Surface Laptop 3 in a similar event earlier this month.)

“I think any discussion about responsible manufacturing should include talk about how to repair these devices, and what happens to these devices at the end of their lifetimes,” says Kevin Purdy, a repair advocate at iFixit. “Because to ignore that is a very narrow view of what responsible manufacturing is.”

Google didn’t respond to a request for comment about repairability. But in general, the way current smartphones are designed largely dissuades users from fixing their own devices. “They are just a small rectangular obelisk of glass and metal that seems impenetrable,” Purdy explains. Performing even simple repairs like changing out the battery can often require prying up glass, using a heat gun to loosen adhesive, or pulling apart tiny cables with tweezers.

Yet the simple act of replacing a battery can have a huge impact on a device’s lifespan. Over time, batteries degrade, meaning they don’t hold a charge as well, and they can shut off prematurely, which led to manufacturers like Apple controversially throttling its phones to avoid overtaxing old batteries. “I think, psychologically, people don’t realize how much they’re equating their phone feeling older with its battery life,” says Purdy. “There’s a psychological disconnect between, ‘This is fixable if I got a new battery,’ versus ‘This phone’s old, I want to get rid of it anyway.’”

This dynamic stands in stark contrast to how you might treat a car. If your brakes wear down or your tires wear out, you’ll replace just that part and keep using your vehicle. Throwing out an old phone after two years because it’s getting slow and doesn’t charge might be more like trading in your car because it needs an oil change and an alignment.

According to Josh Lepawsky, a professor of geography at Memorial University who has written extensively about electronic waste, that’s a bit more Google’s fault than ours.

“The phone or other device that’s there in front of us, it’s already been designed,” says Lepawsky. “All of those design decisions which happened before you and I bought it have given it, for lack of a better term, a repairability fate that we can only sort of nudge.” Even if you wanted to replace your battery every year to keep your phone feeling snappy, there’s only so much you can do.

Sealed design may lead to slim, sleek, ultra-modern gadgets, but it also makes it harder to fix anything.

“Do-it-yourself repair is probably very low on brands’ design criteria,” says Lepawsky. “It’s probably not something that they’re thinking very hard about.” In fact, Google’s presentation seemed quite the opposite. During its announcements, the company touted product design details that run counter to repairability. The Stadia controller, it said, would have no visible screw holes, which indicates it might be more difficult to crack open and repair. It used an “intricate origami” to cram parts into its Pixel Buds — if they’re anything like Apple’s AirPods, that means they’re next to impossible to repair.

Sealed design may lead to slim, sleek, ultra-modern gadgets, but it also makes it harder to fix anything. However, there could be a middle ground. In the same way that most people prefer to take their cars to a shop to get an oil change, rather than drag out an oil pan and do it themselves, consumers could take their phones to a repair shop and get a battery replacement done by a professional.

Unfortunately, that kind of infrastructure just isn’t here yet. Apple only allowed shops outside of its official authorization program to start buying parts and receive official repair guides just last month. And smaller manufacturers don’t have the incentive to provide parts and documentation to every corner repair shop.

“You’re kind of limited to Apple, Google, and Samsung when it comes to being able to get it fixed near you conveniently,” says Purdy. Authorized repair centers like uBreakiFix — the primary service center Google support refers users to, for example — often have staff who can fix less common models of LG, Motorola, or Sony, but with stores in only 40 states, there aren’t always locations nearby. “It’s definitely nowhere near the kind of a level of like your Volkswagen breaks down in Boise Idaho, someone can fix it,” says Purdy.

Being able to repair devices isn’t just important to users, but it’s critical to keeping e-waste out of landfills. As Lepawsky points out, for Google’s most recent phone, the Pixel 3a, 74% of the greenhouse gas emissions happen during production of the phone. Meaning once you have the device in your hand, the worst of its impact on the environment has already happened — producing fewer devices and making it easier to extend the lifespan of existing ones is the only way to mitigate this.

“No amount of recycling is going to recapture those [emissions],” says Lepawsky. “If we think of that release in production as a kind of carbon debt, if you will, we should repay that debt over as long a time period as possible.” In other words, the longer you can keep your phone, the better it is for the environment.

But until smartphone manufacturers make repairability a selling point worth mentioning in their presentations, consumers are still going to be more likely to toss out an old phone, rather than repair it to make it last longer. In the last month, Apple and Google have both stood on stages and made grand announcements about how much better their manufacturing process is for the environment than in years past. Then they offer to manufacture a new phone for you that you might not need at all if you could just repair the one you have already.

All Rights Reserved for Eric Ravenscraft

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