Why do we toss working devices?

Monitors, desktops, and cables are piled floor to ceiling in a local garage.
Sam Gould | Used by permission
A pile of unwanted machines, cables, and monitors. All in working condition, but stored in a garage for potential use.

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How childhood chores convinced me to tackle the IT graveyard and campaign for the Right to Repair

Parents use chores to teach essential lessons such as responsibility or the value of work. My chores led me to campaign for the Right to Repair. 

When your parent is a small business owner, your childhood chores start to look a lot more like a part time job. My mom is an IT consultant, assisting some two dozen businesses across the country by operating and managing all of their electronic devices. So whereas most children set the table, I set up desktops.

I was “hired” for simple jobs: moving computers between offices and cleaning them inside and out. While my job focused on device upkeep, our employers were often less concerned with routine maintenance as they were with keeping pace with constant upgrades for their machines.

I get it. Though I still have my first iPhone 6S, I sometimes get jealous when I see the features on the newest phones. But I take a lot of pride in treating my phone with respect, and I would rather keep it until it dies. Especially because I have some personal experience with what it means to send something to the IT Graveyard.

A Walk Through the Graveyard

For every new machine that was sent out from my IT desk, there was an older machine sent back to us. Most of these devices worked fine, but were now second-best compared to the latest version.

IT offices are cluttered because machines are in constant flux. And machines that cannot find a home are instead interred in the back of the office. Once cutting edge, now these machines gather dust. I call it the IT Graveyard.

Phones and computers were sent back at an alarming rate as companies cycled through new hires, “outdated” devices, or were just eager for a newer, sleeker machine. These machines had not died, but now they were trash sitting on my desk. My mornings were fully devoted to cataloging these machines as they piled up in front of me, carefully cleaning and organizing them before they were sent to our graveyard.

Electronics sit waiting for a use … until they become waste

For all the wonder and awe that new computers can conjure up, there is a great deal of somber melancholy that rests at the heart of the IT office. Matching these computers to a new home can become a new line of work unto itself, especially when we are attempting to keep up with a near endless supply of machines moving through our office.

Many computers are stowed to provide parts for another device. Sometimes charities pick them up. But the longer they wait, the more obsolete they become. Manufacturers stop supporting their software within a few years, charging cables are changed on a whim, and now otherwise-salvageable parts are paired to the machine, preventing common parts from being used in other devices.

The devices we couldn’t find a use for were sent to the e-waste recycling group that came every 6 months. A tragic, yet completely predictable, end for a machine designed to die. 

Most e-waste processors try to reuse parts of the electronics they collect. But sometimes, they are required to shred otherwise working devices. It’s hard not to wonder how our society got to this point — where expensive devices that are barely out of date are only as valuable as the glass or copper that you can recover by dismantling them. 

How I fight the “Living Dead”

Thinking about the IT Graveyard for my mother’s small operation, I can only imagine the size of other graveyards in all the other offices across the country. 

Americans discard more than 6.9 million tons of electronic waste annually. The resulting graveyards are more like necropoleis, towering monuments of scrapped metal and wire. These graveyards overflow our landfills, leaching toxic elements like lead and mercury into the ground around them. It is grotesque in scale. How did we become so comfortable with disposability? 

We should still be using all these computers. When I walk through our graveyard of recently-new machines, I envision a fuller life for them. I imagine a future where they were allowed to keep running, where they were not denied the software and hardware required to keep them alive. I imagine all the frustrated owners who were forced to scrap their machine instead be given the option to breathe new life into their device.

This is why I became an advocate for Right to Repair. We should treat our devices with respect, keeping them running as long as possible and fixing them when they break. Companies should design things that last, not build things to be buried. They need to support repair.

It started with my household chores, with thousands of dollars worth of machines piled high on my desk. Now, I am no longer content with graverobbing and salvaging wasted machines. I have the chance to advocate for systems that preserve and sustain our devices, rather than sending them to an early grave. 

We should make sure consumers have the tools required to fix their ailing devices, as well as full access to the parts and instructions to do it safely. We should be supporting the incredible networks of repair shops, IT consultants and hobbyists across the country that are currently denied the ability to repair devices. And we should tell manufacturers to expand their support and care towards their own products, ensuring both hardware and software are preserved for longer. We should do it because it is right, because it is sensible, and because there is no good reason for us to bury our devices alive.

I am linked, for better and for worse, to the phone in my pocket. The least I can do is treat it with respect, to give it repairs and keep it alive the best that I can. That way, when I do send it to the IT Graveyard, it will have lived a full life first.


Will Sherwood

Campaign for the Right to Repair, Associate, PIRG

Will is an advocate and researcher for the national Right to Repair campaign and provides support for PIRG’s New Economy campaigns. Will lives just outside of Boston where he gardens, reads and is often found experimenting with wild new recipes in the kitchen.

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