habit shift: fix it.

October 24, 2016

Faye is very into building forts lately. There’s a fort under my desk most weekday evenings. The ritual of making them is usually the same: Drag the sheepie from the bedroom to the desk, carefully arrange the couch pillows and sheepie underneath it, hang up blankets or play silks or anything else that will make for a cozy place to hang out in. I very much encourage the habit, in part because it sometimes means the difference between making dinner in relative peace or not, and in part because fort building was one of my own favorite childhood pastimes.

As everyone might know, a good fort experience is vastly helped along by a flashlight, so a few weeks ago, I went to our linen closet to get a flashlight out of the toolbox to present to Faye. James and I both entered our romance with mini Maglite flashlights and we’ve held on to both of them. Alas, as is too often the case with the lazy flashlight owner, when I tried to turn them on, they both were dead. Batteries, I figured. But when I tried to open the flashlights, I realized that in both cases the batteries had bloated, leaked, and were stuck inside the flashlights with a solid crust of battery acid oozing out of them. Whoops.

An internet search ensued. What do you do with such a flashlight? I found myself in a deep Reddit rabbit hole with forums of people saying that with a power drill, a bit of vinegar, and a basin of hot water I could potentially dislodge the stuck batteries. (Caveats included toxic battery acid, the risk of explosion, and a flashlight that still wasn’t working once you finished.) This was not a DIY I wanted to experiment with. So how to responsibly care for them? I don’t want a non-working flashlight in my house, but I don’t want my decluttering frenzy to result in adding a piece of toxin-coated metal to a landfill either. 

I took to the Maglite website. I read through their warranties, their FAQs, their user forums. I eventually wrote a quick note, asking what I could do about the fact that I had two flashlights that needed attention. Send them our way, they said, we’ll dispose of them and replace them at a discount. I won’t claim that the system is perfect. I wish I could have fixed them safely myself. (I wish I hadn’t let them become damaged in the first place!) But, the two women I spoke to on the phone assured me that the company deals responsibly with the waste of this sort that’s returned to them. In all, my search took about 25 minutes on a weeknight after Faye was asleep. 

Here’s the thing: In my book, I write about wanting to fill my home with objects that are knowable. I’ll take a French press over a coffee maker with buttons and a plug any day. But there are still objects in my house—electronics and appliances, mostly—that include technology that I can’t claim an intimate knowledge of and that are made with materials that come at a significant price to the planet and to the people working with them.

I recently had the chance to preview the film Death by Design and it’s been weighing on my conscience. The documentary covers the environmental impact of so many of our gadgets. But it also explores the idea that some of the unknowability is by design. Planned obsolescence means that even care and attention might not be enough to keep our tech in working order. Storing my flashlights without batteries in them would have likely prevented their demise, but there are lots of electronics that are designed to fail regardless of user behavior. And fixing or responsibly recycling those things isn’t always so obvious. Despite the ubiquity of these things in our homes and hands and everyday lives, most of us wouldn’t know where to begin when tackling a repair. Cell phones that used to have easily replaceable batteries now have batteries built into them and they’re screwed shut with proprietary screws. When we send our electronic waste out for recycling the metals inside of them are often mishandled, often in the hands of small children. At the same time, we have a tech industry that’s churning out ever-greater numbers of brand-new electronics to satisfy our yen for the latest and greatest. 

Okay; before I lose you to a deep depression, here’s my pledge: to get a little bit more mindful about fixing what I have. Clothes, for sure. But other things, too. As we enter into a holiday season, we’ll be bombarded with advertisements for what the tech world has to offer. I know that the iPhone I’ve now dropped countless times will look even more worse for wear next to ads for this year’s shiny model. I’m going to try my best to turn a blind eye. And when I get my replacement flashlights, you can bet I’ll be storing the batteries separately. 

A few helpful tips

+ If you’re interested in watching the documentary Death By Design yourself, check out the list of upcoming community screenings or host one yourself! (The film will be available for renting online in 2017.)

+ If you have an electronic that’s broken and you’re not sure if you can do anything about it, see if the folks at iFixit might have solution. If they don’t, get in contact with the manufacturer themselves. You might find better answers than you’d imagine.

+ If you’re looking for a responsible way to dispose of something you can’t fix, head to e-Stewards to find a responsible drop-off center for electronic waste near you.

+ If you’re in the market for something new, look into buying something that’s been refurbished. Many manufacturers have refurbished items for sale on their own sites; alternately you can find refurbished products at many electronic stores.

+ If you’re still wringing your hands, sign a petition demanding safer and more sustainable products.

What about you guys? How do you try to handle your tech responsibly?

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  • Reply Zoe October 24, 2016 at 10:11 am

    I had this problem Friday trying to dispose of an old iphone and an iphone 4! I took them to the Apple store and the woman who came to help said someone would be with me in 45 minutes. A seemingly lengthy wait to recycle. I may try to do it online, but so far it has not been a straightforward process.

    • Reply Mary October 24, 2016 at 10:35 am

      For online recycling with Apple:


      I’ve done this quite a few times. I either sell my tech to Apple or an online reseller—there are quite a few who refurbish and re-sell Macs, iPads, and the like. You get cash or credit for a new bit of tech and the market for old products is still pretty good generally.

      FWIW—Apple has introduced new recycling processes (there’s a neat little robot that takes apart phones). They recycle everything they can and responsibly dispose of what they can’t. I also have had several of my phone screens replaced (the glass is taken off and a new piece put on) with companies that then send the parts to Apple or recyclers. I’ve also been able to find other recyclers that promise responsibility for PC products as well. Consuming less is the best option, but I when things need to be replaced there are more options than there used to be.

      At the end of the day, this is all fraught. You are necessarily taking people at their word, but I’ve found that most companies, not just Apple, are beginning to try to act in the way that is best for the environment.

      • Reply Erin Boyle October 24, 2016 at 11:15 am

        Ah, fraught indeed. I was excited when I read about the robot, too, but disappointed to learn that it’s still super far away from meeting the actual demand created from the sheer volume of new phones getting made. Hopeful that it’s a sign of better stewardship and thoughtfulness to come!

    • Reply kelly libby November 4, 2016 at 11:22 am

      Some whole foods have recycling binswing for cell phones! Also, Goodwill often has donated cell phones. People often buy them for spare parts and/or to refurbish. Good luck

  • Reply Marika October 24, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    One way to avoid corroded batteries is to store them in the flashlight backwards. That way they are avaible right when you need them, but the charge isn’t going through them constantly. You have to remember that that is why the flashlight won’t work and take a second to unscrew and flip them around. Thanks for the info on recycling. I have a super old laptop I finally got all the pictures off of, and now I need to figure out how to dispose of it.

    • Reply kelly libby November 4, 2016 at 11:24 am

      Donate to Goodwill or Salvation Army!

  • Reply mado October 24, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks for not shying away from the (possibly) depressing topics. I remember reading not too long ago about a company working on a modular phone, designed to be easily disassembled for repair and upgrade of individual parts as necessary, I’m sure some internet digging could quickly find them for anyone really needing a new phone and looking for an alternative option.

    • Reply Julia October 24, 2016 at 1:06 pm

      Yes, I think it is the Fairphone, a modular smartphone that can be fixed by the owner. Once my iPhone completely dead, what will unfortunately happen in the near future (something or someone) is slowing it down the older it gets, I can´t stick to my beloved apple anymore. It will be a sad goodbye, but I just can´t stand this planned obsolescence anymore. And a phone that can be fixed and advanced, with exchangeable parts sounds like the only really modern way for me. I do not want to spend my money for the future trash anymore. Thank you so much Erin, to be a constant source of inspiration!

  • Reply Roxanne October 24, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    I don’t have anything helpful to add, other than this: thank you! Thank you for continuing to share quality content that matters. It is so, so appreciated. xo

  • Reply Alix October 24, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    I was fairly upset when I found out recently that it’s cost more to fix my camera than to buy a replacement. Sure, it’s 10 years old, but it’s not as though I used it every single day. Ridiculous and wasteful, they way things are designed to fall apart nowadays.

  • Reply Rika October 24, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    I recently learned that the Swedish government is introducing substantial tax breaks for repair services in order to cut back on waste and to encourage the purchase of high quality products. Such a great idea! Also for the U.S. I think.


    • Reply Erin Boyle October 24, 2016 at 1:38 pm


  • Reply Nikki October 24, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    It does appear that tech is designed these days so that it can’t be fixed easily or cheaply. I agree with you. It’s not right. My sister-in-law bought wind up torches for her kids which gets rid of the need for batteries. I’m getting a couple for my kids for when they are hiding in the dens that they have made.

    • Reply Erin Boyle October 24, 2016 at 3:12 pm

      Yes! Actually looked into those first, then remembered that we already owned two flashlights, then discovered they were both damaged…rabbit holes indeed!

  • Reply Anna October 24, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    I recently came across something that I wanted to share with you and it’s just so fitting today. Have you heard of Fairphones? ( https://shop.fairphone.com/en ) . I first found these through the Austrian blog Dariadaria. The idea is to have a piece of ejecting equipment that you don’t have to constantly throw away and replace. Instead, should one part actually break you just get a replacement and install it yourself. I’d love to hear your opinion on this. (this is not my product, I just think it’s something you might appreciate!)

    • Reply Erin Boyle October 25, 2016 at 12:07 pm

      Yes! A few folks have mentioned them! I’m intrigued!

  • Reply VL October 24, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    Congrats on your detective work on safely disposing of the flashlights. Yes, that death by design really bothers me. I keep things forever until they won’t work…so it really bugs me with computer stuff that otherwise is ok…it just can’t keep up with upgrades. A slight rant: I have an Apple printer that is about 15 years old but still worked fine, didn’t use it a lot. (Anyone remember those triangular shaped , candy colored iMacs that came out around 2000? My printer even had a matching purple cover). Then that purple iMac stopped working bc it could no longer keep up with upgrades and we replaced it with a used iMac and kept the purple printer. But when the newer iMac died a few years later and I replaced it, the new software would not run my old purple printer anymore. That old printer is sitting in a closet until I get it together to take it to the recycling center at Best Buy. As a matter of fact both old computers are in a closet too, plus an even older mac SE. I’m trying to think of a free or cheap way to recycle them and still safely get rid of the hard drive….sigh.

  • Reply ladylyn October 24, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    I don’t really have many good ideas other than use what you have as long as possible. I had the same “dumb” phone for four years, and it worked fine even if it was a little beat up by the time it stopped working.

  • Reply Emma October 24, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    Tech fixes are tough. Even with two savvie engineers in the family, I still end up spending more money/time/natural resources than I’d like on those little gadgets. But I have consoled myself with the discovery of a sharpie the perfect shade of blue to cover up the bleach stain on my favorite dress. Baby steps.

  • Reply thebalconydresser October 25, 2016 at 7:15 am

    I really love your pledge for fixing things! In several European countries, we have a concept called “repair café”. People that are keen to do diy work and repair things come together at a designed place and time and if you have something that needs fixing you can bring it along and they will try to bringt it back to life for you or even explain how this can be done so that you might end up working on it together.

    • Reply Erin Boyle October 25, 2016 at 12:06 pm

      So awesome!

    • Reply Laurel S October 26, 2016 at 10:18 am

      I recently read that this exists in Toronto as well!

  • Reply sam-c October 25, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Thank you for this post. Yes, planned obsolescence drives me crazy. My biggest pet peeve is hair dryers. (I wish I could be one of those people that showers at night and then my hair is dry in the morning, but I always end up sweating at night.)
    In my adult life, every hair dryer dies after 2ish years. From $25 hair dryers to $ 70 ones from beauty supply stores. I hate it. I remember the hair dryer we had when I was a kid. I can still picture it and its toggle buttons. It lasted 10 ish years. Why don’t they make them like they used to !?!?! And do tell, if you’ve found a good one.

    • Reply Erin Boyle October 25, 2016 at 12:06 pm

      Oh man; our hair dryer is actually super old (it was James’s from his days as a ski bum in utah!), but I’m sure it’s lasted so long only really because it’s used so infrequently!

  • Reply elaine October 25, 2016 at 8:36 pm

    Bravo on calling attention and for sharing all this information. One of my sons works for a global non-profit that deals with the toxins we bequeath to others.

  • Reply Jenna October 26, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    In Ontario (and maybe other provinces in Canada?) we have “Orange Drop” for batteries, pressurised cylinders, oily waste, and the like (makethedrop.ca) and electronic recycling depots all over the place that take apart your electronics and dispose of and recycle them safely (recycleyourelectronics.ca).

    Orange Drop has actually gotten so common in Toronto that there is a bucket in my condo where we put dead batteries and light bulbs, etc. that shouldn’t go into landfills. Just putting this out there for anyone else in the area who might not be aware!

    Planned obsolescence is the worst. I’ve been babying my Macbook that I purchased back in 2008, but I can’t accept any more updates with the existing hardware, so a replacement is in my future.

  • Reply Jennifer O. November 3, 2016 at 9:45 am

    This reminded me that I’ve been carrying around a bunch of dead batteries (mostly rechargables that finally stopped recharging). My office building has a recycling receptacle for them but I kept forgetting to drop them off!

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