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Hackers get a break against companies that keep you from repairing your stuff

Alonzo Nelson works at Tech Dump, which recycles electronics, thus stemming the flow of hazardous garage.

Alonzo Nelson works at Tech Dump, which recycles electronics, thus stemming the flow of hazardous garage. Tech Dump

There's a little warehouse in Golden Valley called Tech Dump, where self-taught salvagers triage, conjoin, and recycle electronics otherwise destined for the landfill.

All sorts of curiosities roll through. Pallets full of old monitors that corporations toss out when they upgrade, dinosaur TVs that get left in basements when seniors downsize, sewing machines from the 1920s. What can't be fixed gets stripped for its basic components, which are sold to downstream vendors as commodities.

Worldwide e-waste is estimated to reach 50 million metric tons this year. The vast majority of discarded computers, tablets, and cell phones ends up in electronic graveyards in developing countries like China, where local workers burn and acid bathe them for their most valuable components -- poisoning waterways, wildlife, and mother's wombs.

The reason people produce such an enormous pile of tech trash is that trendy gadgets aren't designed to be repairable.

Twenty-eight-year-old Carl Wilcoxon works in a cave-like nook of Tech Dump surrounded by heaps of Macs, some as old as 2005. He's a former physics major who dropped out of Hamline due to a learning disability that kept him from passing English. These days, he repairs broken laptops using tricks he's accrued through trial and error, YouTube videos, and online forums.

"It's kinda funny working on Apple stuff because you can tell, year after year, they gradually make it harder," Wilcoxon says.

The oldest Mac within arm's reach has easily removable battery, RAM, and hard drive, all hidden behind a back plate that could be unscrewed with the edge of a quarter. In the next iteration, the battery is stored separately behind three screws that require a specialty screwdriver that doesn't work on anything else.

In later models the battery is glued in and the RAM is permanently embedded on the motherboard. If it dies, the whole machine dies with it. No components are easily removable.

Over the years, some particularly determined YouTubers have pirated schematics and invented solvents to remove the glue that binds components. Nevertheless, their techniques are time-consuming and unsuited for a small recyclery like Tech Dump.

A lot more products could be saved if only Apple designed them to be serviceable in the first place, published repair manuals, and made parts available for purchase, Wilcoxon says.

The problem is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a federal law from 1998. Unlike automobile manufacturers, which provide mechanics and consumers with repair information, tech companies have always interpreted this law to mean that although consumers may own their devices, they have no right to the intellectual property behind them.

In 2014, Minnesota became the first of a handful of states to propose legislation compelling tech companies to produce repair manuals, courtesy of Sens. David Osmek (R-Mound) and John Marty (DFL-Roseville). Apple sent lobbyists. The local "Right to Repair" movement is still fighting for a break.

Then, last month, the U.S. copyright office decided to relax some provisions of the 1998 law. It's now legal to jailbreak software embedded in cell phones and other devices in order to fix them.

Yet companies don't have to share any information to make the process easier. So for the time being, that still leaves Tech Dump's workers -- 80 percent of whom have criminal records, 67 percent who've experienced homelessness, and 50 percent in recovery from addiction -- to tinker in the dark.

The real gift from the U.S. copyright office is how its recent announcement strikes down tech manufacturers' main argument that sharing repair information would invite the public to a free buffet of intellectual property, says Tech Dump CEO Amanda LaGrange.

It gives her hope that Minnesota could use that federal guidance to finally pass Right to Repair legislation next year. Some companies, picking up on consumer preference for less waste, would voluntarily evolve their business model.

Motorola, for example, recently became the first smartphone manufacturer to offer parts for purchse on iFixit, a hub for reverse-engineered manuals and third-party parts. Motorola's decision came right about the same time as the copyright office's.

LaGrange knows where she's going to buy her next phone when her iPhone 5S finally bites the dust.

"I’m taking it as a huge sign that maybe, just maybe, manufacturers will kind of see the opportunity," she says. "We could fix so much more stuff and employ so many more people, and train so many more people, if we could access the parts we needed to do it and actually scale the organization ... It could really grow."