Smash an old TV, and you risk spewing lead into the air. Crack open an LCD flatscreen, and you can release mercury vapor. Mobile phones and computers can contain dangerous heavy metals such as cadmium and toxic flame retardants. Mexican workplace regulations, like those in the U.S., require e-waste shops to provide such safety equipment as goggles, hard hats, and masks. There’s little of that in Renovación. ... In much of the world, a place like Renovación couldn’t exist, and not only because business owners wouldn’t be allowed to employ people in those conditions. Twenty-five U.S. states and Washington, D.C., home to 210 million Americans, have laws establishing what’s known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR. That means electronics makers must collect, recycle, and dispose of discarded equipment rather than allow it to enter the waste stream. Parts of Europe also have this system. ... Manufacturers don’t do this work themselves. Typically, a state, county, or town establishes an e-waste collection program. Then recycling companies come to haul away the junk. The manufacturers pay some or all of the bill. The e-waste can be of any provenance. ... The lack of a formal, regulated recycling industry is one of many reasons Mexico has become a magnet for spent electronics. ... A ton of mobile phone circuit boards can produce 30 ounces of gold, worth about $39,000 at current prices.
Wiens, 33, is co-founder and CEO of iFixit, a company whose mission, he says, is to "teach everybody how to fix everything." On iFixit's website is a vast library of step-by-step instruction sets covering, well, let's see: how to adjust your brakes, patch a leaky fuel tank on a motorcycle, situate the bumper sensor on a Roomba vacuum cleaner, unjam a paper shredder, reattach a sole on a shoe, start a fire without a match, fill a scratch in an eyeglass lens, install a new bread-lift shelf in a pop-up toaster, replace a heating coil in an electric kettle, and--iFixit's specialty--perform all manner of delicate repairs on busted Apple laptops and cell phones. More than 25,000 manuals in all, covering more than 7,000 objects and devices. Last year, according to Wiens, 94 million people all over the world learned how to restore something to tiptop working condition with iFixit's help, which frankly was a little disappointing. Wiens's goal was 100 million. ... IFixit makes about 90 percent of its revenue from selling parts and tools to people who wouldn't know what to do with them if iFixit weren't also giving away so much valuable information. The rest comes from licensing the software iFixit developed to write its online manuals, and from training independent repair technicians, some 15,000 so far, who rely on iFixit to run their own businesses. ... Apple doesn't report just how huge that repair revenue is, but trade journal Warranty Week estimates that one proxy for that--sales of Apple's extended-warranty repair program, AppleCare--delivered the company a staggering $5.9 billion worldwide in 2016. ... "I'm really concerned about the transition in society to a world where we don't understand what's in our things," he says. "Where we are afraid of engineering, afraid of fact, afraid of tinkering. When you take something like a phone or voice recorder and you take it apart and you understand it enough to be able to fix it, a switch flips in your brain. You go from being just a consumer to being someone who is actually a participant."