Open it up and look inside


A Black and Decker toaster oven, a pre-amplifier (and its sister amplifier), an electric hot water boiler for tea, and a monitor from an older computer — these are just some of the electronics and small appliances that have moved from inside of my home to the staging area known as the garage, to the football-stadium-sized parking lot of a local corporation where energetic volunteers accept and sort the electronic waste that area residents once owned.

Like the thousands of New Jersey residents that surround me, I’m usually done with these things once they no longer function, eager to move them out and to reclaim the space they inhabited.  I want the objects to go wherever it is that they go, and most times I’m in the dark when it comes to where that is.  Occasionally I read tales from places like the Ivory Coast, narratives of the toxic trails our electronics follow, journalistic accounts about poisoning the poor, human stories about the consequences of dumping e-waste, and I worry deeply about the health of the people affected by our e-waste.  There’s oftentimes little environmental justice for those on the other end of the electronic waste stream.

Peter Mui, the founder of Fixit Clinics, has a different way of handling e-waste.  He teaches people how to fix their broken stuff through a “collaborative process” that provides the “coaching and the specialty tools.”

In an interview published in the January/February issue of Sierra Magazine, Mui says:

“One woman brought in a beautiful vintage Sunbeam toaster that she had inherited from her grandmother. We started to tear it apart.  And lo and behold, at the bottom there were actually adjustment screws. Whoever made it knew that it would go out of alignment eventually.  It made me think about all the toasters of that generation sitting in landfills because no one knows about the adjustment screws.”


Mui enthusiastically gathers volunteers to put together Fixit clinics.  I applaud his grassroots spirit. He sees a special kind of joy that people experience when they fix things others have given up on.  The clinics can now be found in San Francisco, Boston, Knoxville and Minneapolis.

According to Sierra Magazine, 6.6 billion pounds of electronics were discarded in 2010 in the United States, creating enormous e-scrap piles.  Fixit Clinics are making a big difference. “If enough consumers start opening things up,” says Mui, “we might be able to say to manufacturers, ‘You know, if you just made this one part more robust, the product would last a lot longer.'”