Fix it or throw it? The top goods and gadgets we tried to fix ourselves last year

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- You may give or receive a new gadget for the holidays -- but you know someday they'll break down or become obsolete. So what do you do with your useless machines? A consumer advocacy group says too often we give up and throw them out. There's a better way.

They look shiny and new and full of promise when you see them in the store: that high-tech refrigerator, the powerful vacuum, the latest iPhone... Yet, they're all doomed to break down or become obsolete. The California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) says companies make it too hard for you to repair the cellphones and appliances you own, resulting in those devices winding up in the landfill. However, CALPIRG also found millions of us are trying to reverse the trend -- using the internet to fix our own stuff.

Emily Rusch, executive director at CALPIRG, talks about the effects on the consumer. "The unfortunate reality is, the harder it is for a consumer to repair or replace their product, the more likely they are to just give up and throw it out and buy a new product."

In its last measurement, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported about four million tons of used appliances were dumped in landfills back in 2017... and the amount keeps rising.

The EPA estimates Americans throw out 350,000 cell phones every day -- as batteries die, or we just want the latest model. "It's terrible for the environment, and we end up spending a lot more money than we should," says Rusch.

However, CALPIRG has discovered a different trend: instead of throwing out electronics, millions of us are trying to fix them. "Overall I'm shocked at how many people do actually go online to try and fix their own products," Rusch says.

CALPIRG found roughly 8 million Californians logged onto a popular website called iFixIt last year.

The most common items users wanted to repair?

Cellphones were number one, for replacing dead batteries or cracked screens. Second were laptops, then cars, then gaming consoles. Others popular searches were for repairs on desktop computers, tablets, headphones and vacuum cleaners. And that's just one website -- many more of us find help on YouTube.

"Unfortunately far too often we're finding there are barriers put in place that actually prevent the common user to be able to extend the life of their own product," Rusch notes.

The CALPIRG report says companies should provide customers with tools and instructions to fix their own gadgets -- but often they make it difficult instead. "Everything from having to have a special screwdriver to unlock and open your cellphones to not having the right parts," says Rusch.

Technician Chance House says anybody with the right tool kit can fix things. "I encourage it personally for people to tinker. That's how I learned, just taking apart my dad's computer," he says.

Like a smartphone battery: "There's not a whole lot of risk other than taking it apart, take the screws out, putting everything back," House says. It looks daunting -- but eighteen screws later, the adhesive comes off, a new battery goes in -- and we have power!

"Manufacturers don't make it easy to access the parts," says House. House used a battery from a third-party company -- Apple and Samsung don't sell original parts. "Consumers lose out if they have to go to a special store in a special city to extend the life of a product you pay for."

CALPIRG is pushing for a state law requiring companies to offer repair instructions and parts to customers and fix-it shops. Companies also would have to honor warranties even after a repair. The California Manufacturers Association says many companies want to keep tight controls to ensure repairs are done safely and correctly. We'll see what lawmakers decide.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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