January 18, 2012

The Fourth "R" in Reduce, Reuse & Recycle.

Phone Repair

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 Vermonter 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 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 be 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