Teaching People How to Fix Everything

An IEEE Member works to teach people how to repair and extend the life of their electronics

6 October 2010

As more gadgets find their way into our homes, and out, electronic waste may be growing like no other “product” in the economy. A couple of years ago, such trash exceeded 3 billion tons per year in the United States alone, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and only about 14 percent gets recycled. As for the rest, an estimated 65 percent is shipped to developing nations to be simply dumped in illegal and toxic dumps or burned.

How can the growth of e-waste be stunted? One IEEE member has an answer: Teach people to repair and extend the lives of their electronics. A larger goal, humorously expressed on his company’s Web site is: “Fixing the world, one piece of hardware at a time.”

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., has developed an electronic repair manual in the form of a wiki—a communally created and edited online network. He says he hopes the wiki will grow to include thousands of repair manuals on how to fix anything electronic, and more. Right now, for example, he’s got instructions for repairing such items as cellphones, BlackBerrys, iPods, iMacs, Nintendos, microwave ovens, and even the tweeters in Honda Accords.

Manuals are submitted by companies and individuals and reviewed for accuracy. Although the repair wiki idea grew out of iFixit—which sells parts for Apple products and provides free online repair manuals—Wiens says it’s more about his passion for ecological activism than promoting his company.

Wiens, 26, says his repair wiki’s greatest impact will be in developing nations, which import used electronics but frequently receive units that don’t work and end up in illegal dumps. Locals usually lack repair manuals or the training to fix the electronics. That paves the way for illicit businesses that thrive on tearing the electronics apart for saleable items, such as copper wiring, and scrapping the rest. Wiens says a comprehensive repair wiki, accessible through community computers and Internet cafés, can at least make a dent.

He traveled last year to Africa to visit illegal e-waste sites and get a better understanding of where the junk ends up. “I realized I had to see the level of e-waste for myself,” he says.

Helped by contacts in Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana, and South Africa, he networked his way to secret dumping grounds, usually in the more dangerous slums. “Many of these countries ban importing e-waste, which is considered toxic because of the cadmium and lead in circuit boards and the flame retardants on the plastic,” he says. “Visiting the waste sites posed a real danger. They’re controlled by criminal syndicates that don’t want dumping locations revealed. I always had locals with me for protection.” He noticed what he thought to be rampant brain damage among villagers from years inhaling burning e-waste fumes.

He compiled his findings in a 4½-minute video that he posted on YouTube in April to announce the wiki’s launch. He then publicized it through U.S. speaking engagements during which he discussed sustainable consumer electronics design, and he chronicled his experience in Africa for a webinar held in May by IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade. By August, the publicity led to the number of repair manuals doubling to some 1500 documents.

TECHNICAL TOUCH-UPS
Wiens launched iFixit in 2003 with a friend, Luke Soules, also an IEEE member. Both were students at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Wiens majored in computer science, Soules in industrial engineering. They were paying their way through college by buying used computers on eBay, dismantling them, and selling their parts.

“It became instantly obvious that people didn’t know how to install the parts we were selling, so we started writing online repair manuals, linking to products and specialty repair tools we were selling,” Wiens says. “I always felt good about helping people, but gradually we learned what a problem e-waste was, and I realized that we might be able to offer a solution.” After graduating in 2005, Wiens began working on the repair wiki software platform, which iFixit is funding.

In upcoming presentations at the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society’s Games Innovation Conference in Hong Kong in December and the IEEE International Conference on Consumer Electronics in Las Vegas in January, Wiens says he will urge manufacturers to design electronics in a more modular fashion so it’s easier to remove and replace damaged or outdated parts.

“I’m having issues getting electronic manufacturers on board,” he says. Although he says individual engineers see the value of making products more repairable, they’re up against corporate machines gunning for profits. “As a compromise, we want them for now to make their repair manuals public,” he says. “Only the manufacturers have the information that both we and the people in developing nations need.”

More information on e-waste dumps can be found on the IEEE Spectrum Web site.