How enforcing antitrust rules can help our e-waste crisis

How enforcing antitrust rules can help our e-waste crisis
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Our inability to repair what we own has a disastrous consequence: the mounting e-waste in our landfills. Every year, we throw out millions of tons of electronic goods to make way for the new products that corporations are eager to sell to us — a cycle that threatens public health worldwide. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

For decades, dominant manufacturers have used nefarious tactics to corner repair markets so that we must rely on them — and only them — to fix our things. They’ve also figured out that they can design less durable items or even design them to be unrepairable, to extract more profits from consumers. While it’s a money-making proposition for these corporations, it’s a losing proposition for consumers and the planet. 

E-waste comes from a broad range of discarded goods including televisions, computers and batteries. Beyond the plethora of plastic used in many consumer products, e-waste also contains highly toxic components such as lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated flame retardants

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According to the World Health Organization, exposure to the toxic chemicals and substances in e-waste can cause irreversible damage such as low birth weight, thyroid issues and neurological damage. These substances can leach into the soil and even into groundwater. Many of these electronics that we throw away are sent to developing countries where workers — sometimes even children — dismantle the products under unsafe conditions where their skin is exposed to these chemicals.

In other cases, to get to the valuable metals in discarded products, the waste is burned or soaked in acid, which both adversely affect our atmosphere, pollute the air and damage the lungs of individuals who breathe in the toxic fumes. 

The world produced an estimated nearly 50 million tons of e-waste in 2018, or approximately 15 pounds per person. The worldwide accumulation of e-waste has more than doubled in the last nine years, to 49.3 million tons. By 2021, the annual total could surpass 57 million tons. 

This problem can be reversed, but only if we acknowledge the direct connection between e-waste and the predatory practices that corporations use to sell us more stuff and keep us beholden to them for pricey repairs. 

Predatory, Exclusionary Design and Restrictions on Repairs 

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We’ve all experienced how broken repair markets eliminate our ability to fix our things, whether it’s blenders or toaster ovens that are easier to discard than repair, or broken screens on iPhones that cost a small fortune for a simple fix. Corporations extract predatory profits from repair markets across many sectors, whether in agriculture, where farmers can’t easily repair their own tractors, or in health care, where medical personnel have been unable to fix broken ventilators critically needed during the COVID-19 crisis.

As we outline in a new report from Open Markets Institute, it often costs nearly as much to repair products as it does to replace them. Americans spend $3.4 billion repairing phone screens; 65 percent of consumers do not get their phones repaired because it is too expensive. 

Manufacturers get away with restricting repair in ways that make these simple fixes more costly for consumers. Dominant manufacturers refuse to make their official parts, tools, manuals and diagnostic software available to independent shops unless the shops submit to onerous data-sharing requirements and crippling legal liabilities. Other corporations have no authorized repair network at all and force all consumers to ship cameras back to one of two warehouses nationwide for authorized repair.

In one notable instance, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol seized replacement iPhone screens bought from an independent repair shop because they had a small Apple logo on them, which Apple used to claim trademark infringement because they were purchased without Apple’s permission. These are just some of the ways that third-party technicians are kept from competing in the repair markets, even though they can be 30 to 50 percent cheaper and can repair products more quickly than the dominant manufacturers.

Many corporations also engage in a practice known as predatory and exclusionary design, when manufacturers specifically design their products to limit repair. For example, manufacturers will use a copious amount of glue or use screws that require proprietary tools to fix. Even worse, manufacturers have increasingly designed single-use products that cannot be repaired, with consumers unaware that they are basically buying a pricey throwaway product. Apple’s popular AirPods retail for $159 to $249, but its internal rechargeable battery cannot be replaced without destroying their outer casing or ruining internal components. AirPods often lose their ability to hold a charge within 18 months, leaving consumers with no choice but to buy “battery service” replacements from Apple, which are simply new AirPods sold for roughly $20 less than the original pair.

Apple is among the many corporations that benefit from monopolized repair markets and use tactics such as predatory and exclusionary design to restrict our right to repair. This is how they force us to consume and discard their products so that we must buy more products, generating the e-waste that threatens our health and the environment.

Enforcing Antitrust Policy Can Help Reverse the Tide of E-waste

We can start to reverse the toxic flow of e-waste by ending the monopoly stranglehold that big corporations have on our repair markets. When deprived of the ability to profit on monopolized repair markets, manufacturers would have a greater incentive to make high quality, durable products rather than make products that need regular repair or make shoddy products built to be discarded and replaced regularly.

Lawmakers, antitrust enforcers and regulators have many policy mechanisms that can reopen repair markets. They need to ensure that consumers have access to all the necessary parts, manuals and tools, as well as to diagnostic and service software, to repair the consumers’ products. They also must use favorable antitrust doctrine to sue corporations that monopolize repair aftermarkets. This could include charges of unlawful tying, exclusive dealing, exclusionary design and refusals to deal. The Federal Trade Commission also has broad authority to open repair markets. The agency can enforce the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act to ensure that manufacturers are not illegally limiting or restricting product warranties if consumers seek independent repairs. The Federal Trade Commission can also enact rules to prohibit exclusive dealing and other unfair methods of competition that seek to restrict repair markets. 

We shouldn’t have to purchase a constant stream of throwaway products that create the massive public health issue of landfills swelling with toxic substances. We shouldn’t have to live as hostages to dominant manufacturers to repair our goods, when there are cheaper, more efficient third-party options for service. 

Good policies that enforce anti-monopoly protections for consumers in repair markets could go a long way toward making our products last longer and prevent vast amounts of e-waste that harm our health and the environment.

Claire Kelloway is a reporter and researcher at Open Markets Institute. Daniel Hanley is a reporter and policy analyst at Open Markets Institute.