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The Fourth "R" in Reduce, Reuse & Recycle

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12 comments
Author: the Inkslinger

When my two-year-old clothes dryer went on the fritz recently, I hoped for a simple service call and got one. We just needed a new heating coil. What we didn't need was the nearly $400 bill to replace it. That's what brand new dryers cost! And therein lies a crazy truth: it's usually easier and cheaper to buy new than fix what we've already got.

It doesn't matter whether its dryers or vacuum cleaners, blenders or shoes, iThings or e-widgets. When something goes, no matter how small, the whole kit and kaboodle frequently ends up in the garbage truck -- along with all the energy and resources required to make it -- no matter how fundamentally serviceable it may still be.

If you're a thrifty Yankee like me, this makes your skin crawl. If you're on a budget, it makes your wallet weep. If you care about the planet and our kids, it's downright alarming. How much are we needlessly tossing away each year just because a single part fails?

I don't want to know. I just want to see less early obsolescence built into so-called "durable goods" and more ventures like PhoneDoctors, which (hat tip to Treehugger) is working to empower people to fix at least part of the problem, namely portable electronics whose only repair solutions typically seem to involve a trip to the landfill and then to the mall.

PhoneDoctors does more than heal insanely expensive gizmos for which all hope has perished. They also quite obligingly provide the tools, parts, and instructions you need to take matters into your own hands and resuscitate left-for-dead gear yourself. It won't help with your dryer, but if you dunk your phone, smash your Pod or crash your Pad, at least now you can save some resources and even some pennies by fixing it rather than forgoing it. How sustainably refreshing!

Fact is, we could use a whole lot more of this kind of can-and-will-do attitude. Because as important as it is to reduce, reuse, and recycle, it's equally vital to honor the fourth, often forgotten "R:" repair. Restoring this missing "R's" rightful place alongside the other three at the center of our collective environmental mantra would save mountains of valuable resources, oodles of money, a lot of landfill space, and prevent toxic pollution, too. (Yes, e-waste, I'm talking to you.)

But we the people can't do it alone. Repair kits and other DIY solutions need to be much more available, and products need to be built to encourage easy home repairs. There is, for example, no reason beyond poor design that my dryer has to require an expensive service call to replace known vulnerabilities like its heater coil. Same for batteries, moving parts, and any other elements prone to periodic failure from normal use. We should engineer them all to be replaced by their owners in just a few minutes' time so we can make things last as long as humanly possible.

I'm sure it's much more profitable for manufacturers to intentionally steer us to buying new at the earliest available opportunity if not to outright guarantee that we'll have to, but while that may good for business, it's no way to run the world. And right now that's the thing we need to fix most urgently of all.

photo: phonedoctors.com

12
Comments

theresarn picture
theresarn
01/28/12
Ihave always been one to repair as opposed to replace. Recently my dryer of 35 years needed a new motor. we were sure we would need to replace it. Our repair person put in a new motor for $80 and informed us we could use the present dryer for another 15 years maybe more since I only use it for socks and towels. Everything else gets hung up. Also had my refrigerator quit working on one of the hottest days of the year. Thought for sure it was going to be a compressor. Turned out a piece of insulation had gotten where it wasn't supposed to be and the cost was $150. Both were definitely worth the cost of repairs. I guess the moral of my story is to have good, honest repair people when you don't know how to do it yourself. I have also used the opinions/experience of these people when looking for new products.
tbdsaves picture
tbdsaves
01/27/12
Thanks so much for this article! I too grew up in a family dairy/hog farm household where we fixed absolutely everything until it could not possibly used any longer, from clothes to tractors. I am disgusted by the "throw-away" society of today. That being said, anyone with a little skill can get a lot of stuff for free that works great after some tinkering. A few of my examples are a small garden tiller, push lawn mower, Adidas brand reversible jacket (needed a new zipper) and a quilted flannel coat. Take a gander on Freecycle or Craigslist:Free postings and you'll see lots of items that just need a little love. I agree with some of the comments here that most older items are better quality and made to last. My husband and I are definitely in that school of thought now, but weren't when we bought a brand-new Maytag stackable washer/dryer set last year. I wasn't too thrilled about all of the electronic features, so I am crossing my fingers we don't have many issues. FYI - Reader's Digest had an article in this month's issue about "X number of things your TV Salesman won't tell you". It's an interesting article, but I was truly appalled with the statement that described how the new TVs are only made to last about 5 years. I am sure most people have them longer than that, though. My husband and I have agreed to repair our 1996-model 27" TV for as long as possible; when the TV is no longer repairable, we will get a free, older model from the newspaper, Freecycle or Craigslist.
theresal picture
theresal
01/27/12
We remodeled about 10 years ago and got rid of the old appliances as my spouse wanted new. Since they were already 13 years old, I agree, but they were in good condition. The top of line appliances that we purchased has already been replaced, as the refrigerator did not survive. I replaced it with a second hand, and its been four years already - it may take more electricity - but its not in the dump. The government and stores do so much to save a plastic bag, why are they not doing more to save the large and smaller appliances? How can young people move forward when what they buy now has to be all replaced within ten years? My mother's appliances are still around and they are well over 40 years. So, they have the means, but corporations are only interested in the money. I now have a back up plan for some products, if I see a good iron, toaster, or other small appliances at a garage sale that work, I purchase it as I prefer second hand now. I purchase old kitchen tools, as they have been around forever, when the new stuff bends, cracks and breaks. If I don't get some plastic bags then I have to purchase plastic bags. Reuse your plastic bags, fold them up and its easy to put 5 or 6 in your purse. You won't get the PC 'points' but if you really want plastic then reuse them. My outlook is that everything has to be used, more then ones. New and second hand books, get passed on through the family, then the second hand stores. I hunt first into the second hand stores first, then reluctantly purchase new. God forbid if I find a second hand a few weeks later, lol! We all need to get a little more creative, it may not be good for the economy, but then just maybe the corporations might get the hit that stainless steel appliances mean nothing if the motor or parts do not hold out and last 25+ years. We have the means!
appleimac picture
appleimac
01/27/12
Often, I find older appliances are made better, and worth repairing, even if it costs more than some would feel worth it. My Electrolux model E vacuum is more than 50 years old - it has had one tune-up, one switch - and last year I paid over $100.00 to finally replace the motor. To me, something more modern has to "give me something" to make it worth replacing. For example, despite the energy-efficient new fridges, I am reading so many horror stories of them not lasting - Westinghouse only has a 90-day warranty - making one wonder, why bother with a warranty at all? My 89 Amana 3-door has a defrost problem that rears its head every 5 years or so - but that has been it for 25 years! When I have a appliance that I really like, I find it worthwhile to look for used books on repairing that appliance AHEAD OF TIME, so I have a nice library of material to refer too when considering a repair, as well as repairclinic.com, which has helped me through many a repair. I own a Frigidaire front-load washer, which many state has been known to need an expensive bearing repair, requiring an expensive part assembly, unless you know how to replace just the bearings (not an easy task) - this may be related to using bleach in these washers, it seems it may eat the aluminum components, which may cause aluminum dust to get into the bearings. I have bookmarked on the Samurai-fix-it guy's website how to do just that, so I have some info on what to do if this washer goes out. I have only used bleach once in this washer, so far, so good for several years with no problems. Another factor with me - I live in an upstairs condo, and am single. 16 stairs up a medium-sized stairwell means the thoughts of muscling a new fridge or washer in every few years does not appeal to me - repairing what I have seems more appealing in this case than to someone with easier access to get appliances in and out. I also found a neat telephone repair place, A-1 telephone out of NY - my bedroom phone died, so I bought a vintage trimline 210 phone off e-bay, and had it repaired by this guy, who is now repairing an orange rotary wall phone for me. He apparently wears a video cam on his hat, and video's each repair, so when it is done you can see exactly what he did, and he explains why. These old phones were so much better built, works during power failures, and so neat to see them restored, and not trashed! Plus you learn a real appreciation for what goes into working on these phones.
MotherLodeBeth picture
MotherLodeBeth
01/26/12
Grew up in a home where my engineer Dad repaired items when they broke, and this is what we do now ourselves. ----Invest in repair manuals for your appliances and look in the yellow pages or online for some place locally that sells the heating coil for the dryer or handle for the stove. ---- And read the manuals long before you may need the information. Some communities even have classes that teach basic car, appliance, computer repair.-----And when buying an appliance the fewer bells and whistles the fewer problems and less expensive repairs.----My clothes line never breaks <G>
wizhead picture
wizhead
01/26/12
I have an old, huge television and several years ago a sound chip went out on it. When I called a repair man to fix it he actuallly told me I should just go buy a new flat screen. I found another repair man who fixed it for me for $120 and told me the picture tube was still in good shape and should last many more years. I refuse to replace it with a new television until it is beyond repair simply because it seems so wasteful to upgrade to a flat screen and then take up at least a cubic meter in a land fill. Thanks for reminding everyone it is just fine to repair things!
brendabloods picture
brendabloods
01/26/12
I think this is partially why the DIY movement is becoming so popular. A typical heating coil is $20-$40 and there are videos all over youtube on how to do it yourself. Actually just did this myself. repairmen are over-rated... but that's coming from a wife of an electritian, who's brother-in-law is a carpenter, and brother is a computer scientist ;) most repairs are covered around here :)
Firegirl64 picture
Firegirl64
01/26/12
iRobot, the company that makes the "Roomba" vacuum cleaner robot, is excellent. Its products all have a very modular design that makes it easy for the homeowner to replace only the part that is broken, and the parts are readily available at the company's website for a reasonable cost. I have several of their products.
ellie picture
ellie
01/26/12
Sorry to hear about your repair bill. One of the things that I try to keep in mind when making a large purchase like an appliance is how simple it is designed. In the case of washers and dryers, the more fancy they are, (or newer), the more they rely on electronic circuit boards rather than simple switches to operate their controls. Electronic parts are great because they save space and are cheap to build, and in newer washers and dryers are really a small computer making decisions about how to do its job best, but when they break they are not repairable. I don't disagree with you that companies build in a service life to their product. As a Mechanical Engineering student we are taught about service life, and if you build a product to last longer than the projected amount of time that the user intends to keep it you are overbuilding it and increasing cost in parts and materials. I think our crowd, the people that read this, might be in the minority by wanting to repair and keep an older appliance. Up until the mid 60's, many products were serviceable and many more homeowners had some skills to do the repairs. Many of the skills to repair these things have been lost over the years to all but "trained service technicians" and companies know that the majority of consumers will never open up their product, so why build in extra cost. As others have said, one of the great advantages of our time is the availability of information on the internet. Armed with the internet and the $99.00 154 piece Craftsman tool set to get started, anyone can learn how to repair their own things for a fraction of the cost of professional repair (unless you break it worse) or replacement. If your scared, start by taking apart some of that old junk you've been saving and if you can figure it out or put it back together, at least now you can recycle the metal and plastic parts. And remember to save the screws, you might need them for your next repair project.
ssbblka picture
ssbblka
01/19/12
I find myself saying at least a half a dozen times a week that they just don't make anything like they used too. I have come toma crossroads in my lid fe where I don't like buying most thing new anymore, for fear of what I will get. I have quite a few horror stories of paying good money for a less than quality item (s). Nicely written kimmimommy. We have replaced several belts on our dryer and we are not the "fix-it" types, but I was most proud of my husband, now we are old pros at it and that is several less appliances in the land fill. I have a Panasonic stereo which I bought from a friend approx. 14 years ago and it was way ahead of it's time back then (holds 60 cd's) that I cannot bring myself to replace and I am hoping that I can find someone that can fix it's short (kind of does what it wants when it wants, so I have learned to go with the flow.
twg picture
twg
01/19/12
My late husband replaced the heater coil on our dryer a few times and I fear it may be going out again. He was so good about fixing things and I truly wish I'd paid closer attention. I took it for granted that he'd be around so much longer than he was able. I can't imagine paying $400.00 to repair or replace our dryer! Guess I'll be researching on my own now...
kimmimommy picture
kimmimommy
01/19/12
Great piece! I might add that the internet and You Tube in particular is a great resource for DYI repair. Last year our dryer went on the fritz, and this was at a time that my hubby and I were broker than broke. He has always been very handy and has taught me much about how to repair and maintain things. Rather than call our appliance repair guy, he researched You Tube and found many step by step videos on trouble shooting and dryer repair. It turned out it was simply a broken belt which we were able to replace ourselves at a cost of $12.00. I will add, however, once we got our dryer apart, we were amazed at the amount of lint ALL INSIDE the dryer. We were really fortunate that we didn't have a fire! There would have been another time in my life I would have just replaced what was broken, but now having a sense of responsibility to the planet and a new found empowerment in my repair skills, that doesn't happen.