As remote schooling and work have become the norm since the beginning of the pandemic, the importance of access to technology has never been more clear.
Free Geek’s mission is to help close this digital divide, and the last seven months have been the busiest we’ve ever seen. Free Geek’s demand for free or low-cost devices computers spiked 4,000%. Estimates in May show that more than 75,000 computers are needed by students across Oregon to support distance learning (not to mention additional essential needs like telehealth).
Free Geek’s experience is indicative of a national trend: According to a report by the Associated Press, American students need about 5 million more laptops. School districts that ordered computers in the months prior to the semester weren’t getting their shipments on time, if at all, and millions of students started the 2020-21 school year unequipped for remote learning. A recent New York Times article noted that students in rural areas and communities of color have been the most impacted by this technology shortage.
Unfortunately, Free Geek’s processing time for partners ends up being months for several reasons: not enough of the right tech coming in the door, too many people in need and a lack of access to parts, service manuals and tools to allow us to get devices back into the people who need them.
Repair and reuse have the potential to help meet people’s needs and save families from financial hardship. It can provide essential assistance for education and it’s a potential solution to the computer shortage facing students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder than it should be to reuse and refurbish computers and tablets. For example, manufacturers block access to critical service information, refuse to sell spare parts and use software locks to prevent reuse.
One computer refurbisher believes 5 million software-locked tablets are sitting unfixed in to-refurbish bins across the nation. With millions of families struggling to supply their students with laptops for the virtual school year, this is absurd and unacceptable.
If manufacturers lowered barriers to repair, consumers would be able to fix, update and reuse their devices. But instead, we keep replacing our devices and their lifespans keep getting shorter.
The system we now have is unsustainable. Electronic waste containing dangerous heavy metals is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. If we want to reduce the amount of toxic waste building up in our landfills, we need manufacturers to make repair more accessible.
By allowing consumers to update and reuse their technology, we also can reduce our inclination to chase the next shiny new gadget. The resource-intensive processes needed to produce a single smartphone — using more than 295 pounds of raw materials — make this throwaway culture unsustainable.
Instead of replacing our electronics and letting perfectly usable devices gather dust, it’s time we shift our approach and make repair a top priority.
Together, OSPIRG and Free Geek, along with dozens of other organizations and independent repair businesses are calling on leaders in Salem to support right-to-repair legislation that would require manufacturers to ease restrictions on repair and make available necessary tools, parts and manuals to the public so we can fix our own stuff. Given the growing digital and educational divide, it’s the least we should be doing.
If manufacturers won’t heed the call to make repair more accessible, we need our state representatives to stand up for the right to repair.
Charlie Fisher is state director of Portland-based nonprofit OSPIRG. You may reach him at [email protected] Hilary Shohoney is executive director of the nonprofit Free Geek. You may reach her at [email protected]