Four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and…Repair

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Readers may have seen the crosspost I uploaded by Gaius Publius on Friday, linking the plastic crisis to America’s money-driven political system,
Gaius Publius: Which Would Be Harder to Ban, Single-Use Plastic or Money-Bought Government?

The plastic problem is only part– albeit a huge part– of the worldwide waste calamity. The lack of any meaningful federal action leaves the onus on states, localities (if allowed under state law), and individuals to do what we can to mitigate waste.

Such efforts include participation in initiatives such as Plastic Free July— which  I first discovered last year (and wrote about in Plastic Free July: What YOU Can Do to Reduce Plastics Waste). I took the pledge, and during July 2017, I first reduced my use of plastic significantly. While I still admit I use far too much plastic,  I use much less than I formerly did– particularly single use plastic.

The familiar mantra, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, provides simple guidance on how to reduce waste. I’ve written several posts on what I believe to be the misguided emphasis by governments on recycling, rather than a focus on the first two elements of the triad (of the many posts I’ve written on plastic, see these two in particular on the recycling fallacy, Plastics Pollution Policies– “Bold” or Pathetic? and EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late?)

The Fourth R: Repair

But, I suggest, that a fourth R should be added to the other  three: repair. I’ve written previously about right to repair legislation– an issue that has surfaced largely at the state level in the United States (see Apple Battery Debacle: Yet Another Reason to Support a Right to Repair; US Copyright Office Wimps Out on Right to Repair; Apple Spends Big to Thwart Right to Repair in New York and Elsewhere; and Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States).

US PIRG reports that eighteen US states have proposed such legislation in COUNTRIES ARE TAKING APPLE TO COURT OVER RIGHT TO REPAIR — AND SOMETIMES, THEY’RE WINNING Other organizations– such as the Electronic Frontier Federation– have embraced this project, particularly for software, Defend Your Right to Repair!

Some companies– e.g., Apple– have been staunch opponents, and have not only opposed legislation, but construct products in a dastardly fashion to thwart independent efforts to repair (see this Motherboard account discussing how Apple has made what should be the  simple process of replacing a keyboard to maximize rather than reduce e-waste, The Keyboard Is the Only Thing That Matters About the New MacBook Pros).

The issue isn’t limited to high-tech products, either: farm equipment is another right to repair battleground, as reported by Fox 25 News in “Right to Repair” pits farmers versus their machines:

For the uninitiated, life on a modern farm is less mechanical and more technical. The machines are bigger and more complex than ever before. The computers and technology is intended to improve farming with a goal of improving all aspects of farm production.

However, when one of the new tractors or other pieces of farm equipment breaks down it is not that easy to get it back into the field.

“It is not like just get it done within an hour or so, now you may wait days,” [Richie]Ingram said. “If it is an electronic part you have to order or they have to get with the dealer has to get with the main manufacturer to find out what’s going on.”

….

Something as simple as a blown fuse can sideline a tractor. Even if the fuse is replaced it can still require the dealer or manufacturer to plug in a computer to reset the system. That can mean waiting until your dealer or the company that made the machine can come out to your location because the computers needed to perform the reset is not available to purchase by farmers or even independent repair shops.

The Fox article discusses the situation in Oklahoma– where the state legislature has considered but failed to enact right to repair legislation leaving some to think a national solution is warranted:

There was right to repair legislation filed this past year in the Oklahoma House, but it never made it past committee. The representative who sponsored the bill said he now thinks it may be an issue the United States’ Congress will ultimately have to get involved with in order to find a solution that protects both farmers and manufacturers.

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration hasn’t made the right to repair a national priority— yet neither, for that matter did his predecessor during  the eight years he sat in the oval office.  (Dare I venture that the close relationship between Democrats and tech titans may have had something to do with that oversight?)

Tw Right to Repair Victories

Yet the US is only one field of operations, and on the issue of right to repair, other countries have not been similarly derelict– as the US Air piece mentioned above has highlighted.

Let’s look at two recent right to repair victories.

As MarketWatch reported in June in Apple fined as Australian customers win right-to-repair court fight:

Apple Inc. was fined in Australia for refusing to offer free fixes for iPhones and iPads that were previously serviced by non-Apple stores, the latest episode in a global dispute between companies and consumers about the right to repair.

A court ordered Apple AAPL, +0.16%  to pay a penalty of 9 million Australian dollars ($6.7 million), after it told consumers it wouldn’t offer free repairs for devices that had become inoperable due to a glitch known as “Error 53.” The fault had occurred after consumers downloaded an update to Apple’s operating system.

Apple told at least 275 Australian customers affected by Error 53 that they weren’t entitled to a remedy because their devices had been previously serviced at non-Apple stores, effectively voiding guarantees. The customers were told this between February 2015 and February 2016 and the information was provided on Apple’s website, by Apple’s Australia in-store staff and on customer-service phone calls.

Under Australian law, customers are entitled to a repair or replacement, and sometimes a refund, if a product is faulty, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which sued Apple. Some Apple customers saw Error 53 as part of a general effort to prevent users from going to non-Apple stores for repairs.

Commissioner Sarah Court said Tuesday the Federal Court of Australia ruled Apple couldn’t cease consumer guarantees because an iPhone or iPad had been repaired by someone other than Apple. Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Not much to add to that, is there?

And on the other side of the globe, in another case involving Apple, Motherboard reports earlier this year in Apple Sued an Independent iPhone Repair Shop Owner and Lost:

Last year, Apple’s lawyers sent Henrik Huseby, the owner of a small electronics repair shop in Norway, a letter demanding that he immediately stop using aftermarket iPhone screens at his repair business and that he pay the company a settlement.

Norway’s customs officials had seized a shipment of 63 iPhone 6 and 6S replacement screens on their way to Henrik’s shop from Asia and alerted Apple; the company said they were counterfeit.

Following that notice, Apple requested more information from Huseby, and then sued. The Norwegian court found in favour of Huseby, according to Motherboard:

The court decided that Norwegian law “does not prohibit a Norwegian mobile repair person from importing mobile screens from Asian manufacturers that are 100 percent compatible and completely identical to Apple’s own iPhone screens, so long as Apple’s trademark is not applied to the product.”

The court noted that importing refurbished parts with visible Apple logos on them would be in violation of European Union trademark law (it would be legal, the court said, if the refurbishment of these screens had happened in the EU rather than Asia), but, crucially, decided that because the Apple logo would not be visible to customers while the product was in use, Huseby had not actually used Apple’s trademark.

As Motherboard notes:

The specifics of Huseby’s legal case apply only in Norway, of course, but his case speaks to a problem faced by independent iPhone repair shops around the world. Apple’s use of the legal system and trademark law turns average repair professionals into criminals and helps the company corner the repair market for Apple products.

In the United States, Apple has worked with the Department of Homeland Security and ICE to seize counterfeit parts in the United States and to raid the shops of independent iPhone repair professionals. ICE’s National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center rejected a Freedom of Information Act request I filed in 2016 regarding Apple’s involvement in its “Operation Chain Reaction” anti counterfeiting team, citing that doing so “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.” Apple declined to comment for this article.

“In this case, Apple indirectly proves what they really want,” Per Harald Gjerstad, Huseby’s lawyer, told me in an email. “They want monopoly on repairs so they can keep high prices. And they therefore do not want to sell spare parts to anyone other than ‘to themselves.’”

What Is to  Be Done?

High time, I think, for a stateside right to repair.  I know, I know, pigs are more likely to fly before such a right might be established. Yet just because I can list many reasons this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, it  doesn’t make it any less important to insist on the importance of enshrining four Rs into public policy, and personal practice.

 

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63 comments

  1. Th Rev Kev

    That section about the problems that farmers are having with software-laden tractors is no joke for those farmers. Farmers are literally having to buy pirated Ukrainian software to keep their tractors moving. Story at-

    https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/xykkkd/why-american-farmers-are-hacking-their-tractors-with-ukrainian-firmware

    To support their position, I read that John Deere told the copyright office that only corporations can own property and that humans can only license it. If I was a farmer I would be giving John Deere advice involving sex and travel.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether

      From the article:

      It’s quite simple, really. John Deere sold farmers their tractors, but has used software to maintain control of every aspect of its use after the sale.

      I’m sure that will never happen with robot cars.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        Oh my. I had completely missed that point. I guess that that would make the driver the ‘product’.

        Reply
    2. John Zelnicker

      @Th Rev Kev
      July 15, 2018 at 10:25 am
      ——

      “John Deere told the copyright office that only corporations can own property and that humans can only license it”

      Seriously?!? These people are totally nuts.

      We have now come full circle to where only corps have all the “human rights” and the humans have few or none. This is truly the other side of the looking-glass.

      Reply
    3. Zachary Smith

      I recall reading that article – it was a good one. I don’t know a thing about the Farm Tractor Situation, but if it was humanly possible I’d avoid buying a Deere if I had the misfortune of being a farmer.

      Refrigerators are my current pet peeve. Years ago the purely mechanical devices would last for many decades. The new “computer board” models have been averaging six years with me. I’ll buy a replacement from the appliance store simply because the repair costs are just too high a percentage of the new cost.

      Reply
      1. Carl

        My two vintage fridges have been working fine for the last 60-70 years, not using much electricity, and only needing to be defrosted every now and then. Yeah, it’s kind of a bitch getting them into the house, but that’s because they were made with heavy steel.

        Reply
        1. John

          I’m very skeptical that these old refrigerators used little electricity. Old refrigerators were very inefficient. New electric motors have improved a lot over old designs. Insulation is better as well.

          Reply
          1. Carl

            Nope, the insulation is excellent on these old fridges, and it was only in the 60s when the electric use skyrocketed. Most people do think that , though, which makes the market value on these pretty much nil.

            Reply
      2. Spring Texan

        I still have the refrigerator I got in 1993 and though the shelves are rather worn it still cools well and I am very reluctant to replace it as i’ve heard this about the new ones.

        Reply
      3. earthling1

        Yeah, I was given an old refer 13 years ago as an inlaw bought a new one. He is on his third new one, and I’m still using his old one.

        Reply
  2. Lyle

    However economics have made repair less than an economic choice. This is because repair is a process that involves a human where as making new involves less human involvement. Just a couple of examples in the 1950s shoe repair places were common where one could have soles or heels on shoes replaced. They no longer are very common. Or contrast TVs of the 1950s with todays TVs 1950s tvs cost a lot more relatively than todays (for roughly the same sized picture). Further repair back then consisted of pulling tubes and testing them. Today with transistors most of the things that could go wrong with a 1950s tv can no longer go wrong. Or take radios which back then had tubes also, so you checked the tubes and replaced as necessary. Today a radio costs little so that the cost to just do the paper work for a repair may exceed the replacement cost. Further in many cases such devices are not designed to be repaired.
    In general if the cost to repair exceeds 50% of the replacement cost replace it, is an economically sensible rule.

    Reply
    1. Carolinian

      Apple is the focus of these stories because its products are artificially expensive. Whereas most electronic devices these days are so cheap and reliable that it doesn’t make sense to pay for repairs (although it may be economical to repair them yourself). While we might not have the right to repair we do have the right to not buy Apple.

      Of course if you give up your Apple device you may also give up your Apple apps and all those “networking effects” that also benefit Google, Facebook, Amazon etc. So perhaps the real debate is to what extent should the government interfere with a marketing ploy.

      That said one could point out that for many car insurance companies these days you are required to repair with aftermarket parts.You have to wonder how long Apple or those tractor companies think they can get away with this. As Cory Doctorow says, unreasonable IP claims lead consumers to “piracy, the obvious choice.”

      Reply
      1. Arizona Slim

        Artificially expensive. Got that one right, Carolinian.

        And that’s yet another reason why I won’t buy anything from Apple.

        Reply
        1. Jim Young

          I won’t buy a phone without a removable battery (Apple), since that has been the only way I seem to be able to make sure my phone stays off when I want it off..

          Reply
      2. Olivier

        Re. artificially expensive Apple wares, I absolutely loved it when Apple came out with golden watches because suddenly it was admitting what I had always been saying, namely that it is a jeweler with a computer business as a facade.

        Reply
    2. JerryB

      It is not just about economics and cost. Walmart and Amazon have built business models on buying whatever is cheapest. Unfortunately the lowest cost product tends to after a few years to fall into the disposable category. Buy whatever is cheap, dispose of it in year, and buy another one. Rinse and repeat. Other factors that play into the cheap, disposable, and replace it model is the rise of China and globalization in general. We look at “costs” in dollar amounts but what about external costs such as pollution, garbage, toxins, greenhouse gases, etc? China makes cheap stuff for the American consumer to engage in the buy, dispose, buy again track.

      A while back I was watching a documentary called Of the Sea. It was about the fishing industry. At one point in the movie someone mentioned that fish are caught in the Northwest Pacific and then shipped to China for processing because it is cheaper than processing it here. But what about the energy used to transport the fish back and forth from China?

      I agree with your example of TV’s and there are probably other things that fall under the ” its cheaper to replace than repair” category. I do not think the line is 50% either as it depends on other factors as I have mentioned. If the repair cost is huge then it may be a no brainer but the cost to repair percentage is probably higher than 50% depend on the value of that item to the person. For humans not everything is a rational economic decision as the behavioral economists have found out.

      Lastly not everything is an economic transaction. Unfortunately we have all turned into mindless drones where everything is done in an instrumental fashion. There are many things people own that have value to that person separate from economic costs. We have lost the idea of valuing things emotionally with affect. I think that is one reason for the resurgence of vinyl records. Yes downloading an Itunes song or album is cheaper but that is not the point. Many people appreciate album covers.

      Consumption capitalism has turned everything into a commodity and we have lost the concept of beauty, art, and owning things that have meaning to us.

      https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2018/06/can-locally-owned-stores-save-radioshack.html

      Reply
    3. JBird

      Just a couple of examples in the 1950s shoe repair places were common where one could have soles or heels on shoes replaced. They no longer are very common.

      Clothing has been steadily crapified since at least the mid 1970s. Fewer sizes as something other than small, medium, and tent. Shabby construction including less thread, or the use of glue, then cheaper glue. Also progressively less fabric being used that also is getting thinner. The same can be said about shoes. The clothes and shoes are so poorly made that it is sometimes impossible to repair and always harder to do so. The reason shoe repair is hard to find is that many shoes soles are constructed as to make re-soling at best impracticable because it is cheaper to manufacture that way. Jeans, shoes, underwear, shirts all last much less and are less weather proof. Being frugal is getting hard as not only the cloth, say on a pair of jeans getting thinner, the patches are too! So off to buy another $75 pair instead of just using a patch.

      It is possible to still buy shoes and clothes that are still good, often American made. However, they are expensive. Funny isn’t that both Americans’ income are declining as well as quality of the cheap, made overseas clothing while the made in quality American made clothes are now too expensive although my family had no problem paying for it forty years ago.

      Then there is now the planned obsolescence of people and whole societies, so what’s surprising about that that?

      Reply
      1. Irrational

        A couple of random comments:
        – Nearly impossible to find a white women’s T-shirt or shirt that is not totally see through
        – Almost impossible to find clothing that does not mostly contain polyester or other plastics. Great for running, but not all day at the office!
        – I own an old pair of Paul Green shoes that I have resoled & – heeled probably 5 times. Dearly love them, but I fear they’ll die from inside wear. I don’t like most things you can buy now – unfixable.
        – Buy my everyday clothes mostly when we visit the US, so much cheaper than Europe. Pair of chinos or jeans $30 or EUR 70+!
        – Repairs: it is noticeable that repair shops are far more widespread in Switzerland, which has more import restrictions, than in the EU. The Us seems somewhere inbetween, but also much easier to replace.

        Reply
  3. Eclair

    RE: farmers and the difficulty of repairing farm equipment.

    We visited our cousin the dairy farmer in Washington State this spring and in the course of our conversation about the difficulties of running a smallish family dairy farm, he sheepishly admitted that he is an Amazon Prime member. When crucial equipment breaks down (like milking machines … cows don’t like to be told to hold it for a couple of days) and he needs a part, the local parts dealer takes a few days to order and he has to spend a couple of hours driving to pick it up. He says he now goes on-line, orders the part and it arrives at the farm, sometimes within 24 hours. He mentioned that the on-line parts are much cheaper because they are manufactured offshore.

    Reply
  4. Glen

    The way to address this is to tax products that are not resonably repairable. If the cost all the of parts exceed 200% of the cost of the device there should be no copyrighted rights afforded.

    Reply
  5. Howard Beale IV

    And sometimes having the OEM fix something is way cheaper than a third-party doing it. I had a Samsung Galaxy screen replaced out-of-warranty – local repair places were quoting full manufacturers list price, Samsung factory repair did it for half the cost.

    Reply
  6. Enquiring Mind

    Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.
    Still words to live by, even if harder to achieve.

    Reply
  7. Linden S.

    In a similar vein, does anyone know the economic/greater scholarly discussion on planned obsolescence? Rigorous laws curtailing planned obsolescence and impossible-to-repair consumer goods seem like they should both be cornerstones of environmental/climate policy demands (though deeply difficult to enforce with the necessary specificity..)

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimm

      “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repair” — a nice slogan with some alliteration and a little sound rhyme. Might be a more meaningful if fewer things were deliberately designed to fail on schedule and deliberately designed to be difficult and costly to repair. Might be a more meaningful if products were designed to make the reuse and recycle easier. And so many items are so ugly or badly made that their use — to say nothing of their reuse is problematic — and they are often the best available. As purchasing power is squeezed per capita ‘Reduce’ or substitute seems guaranteed — but there are so very very many of us and more and more each day.

      Reply
      1. earthling1

        I would add repurpose. Many times I’ve taken something that has broke and dis-assembled it and used the metal or wood or plastic to fashion something else, such as a plant hanger or garden ornament or to repair something else that has broken.

        Reply
  8. marieann

    We have been repairing for over 50 years, back then it was due to financial constraints, now it’s because we’re cheap buggers. Duct tape is a wondrous invention and can cure many things.

    However the many of the devices they have now cannot be fixed. I bake often so my hand mixer gets a good workout, the first one I owned lasted me about 35 years with numerous repairs, now it has plastic parts that can’t be fixed.

    We use a breadmaker…they last about 8 years and can’t be repaired, so we buy appliances from the thrift store, yard sales even scrounge from friends (it’s amazing the number of folk who own breadmakers and never use them)
    At the moment we have 3 back up breadmakers and 2 back up mixers.

    The other devices that can’t be repaired like the apple etc. mentioned in the post, we don’t use them.
    Fixability comes into our decision making when deciding to spend our money on shoddy goods…..most of the time we decline.

    Reply
    1. Zachary Smith

      The other devices that can’t be repaired like the apple etc. mentioned in the post, we don’t use them.

      Amen to that. I wouldn’t accept a free Apple product if the offer were conditional on my keeping and using it. My phone is an elderly dumb one, and I’m the only person in the family who doesn’t “text”. The telephones and email work, and the mailbox sits out by the road. So I’m not exactly feeling isolated and deprived.

      Like you, I watch for good stuff in the junk stores. Some of the stuff was obviously given to Grandma and she immediately put it in the closet without ever using it.

      Reply
  9. Rod

    Our county runs refuse ‘recycling’ centers for us living outside of pickup jurisdictions.
    Smart idea with so much underutilized potential material-staffed by tax paid part time employees.
    A simple example of disconnection:

    I had some black plastic nursery pots I picked out of a construction dumpster years ago– to REUSE for my garden starts. Reused them for years. They are now reused to the point of falling apart.
    Time to recycle into the plastics dumpster, I thought.
    I was stopped pre toss by the friendly employee who explained that County Plastic Recycling only takes #’s 1/2/3 plastics so I needed to throw my armful of black plastic pots into the “TRASH”.
    I know my “trash–so I pointed out that these pots were stamped #2. (That’s good plastic for recycling)
    “Well, regardless, they don’t want to see those in the Plastic Bin, so throw them into the trash”.
    OK.
    Why isn’t the nursery asking for a $ deposit to encourage return for reuse.
    Why can landscape businesses burden counties and taxpayers with disposal costs for reusable items.
    Why don’t we have custodial control and responsibility constraints for items that have a reuse potential but are turned into refuse because the industries deem them to be a cost burden on them without regard to cost transfer to the public.
    Why, at the least, doesn’t the county want black # 2 in their recycle stream?
    York Co. SC spends millions of tax dollars in waste management.
    And they do a good job– compared to nothing as a base line.
    SC and ALEC,walking hand in hand like Texas, have prohibited localities from enacting bag taxes and bans.
    Sunoco Packaging Corp.–a worldwide pioneer in “packaging solutions” is headquartered here.

    Then there is all that land clearing debris from all the rampant clear cutting development that is ground and given away or buried–courtesy of the taxpayer–with those three Pellet Mills begging for raw materials less than 100 miles away.
    Poverty of imagination is as impactful as moral poverty–IMO
    I have separate opinions on Pellet Mills–but they are already built and eating up forests in NC/SC/ and SE–and every County has its own ‘Brush Dump’.
    That’s 100 sources in NC and 46 in SC.

    Reply
    1. Oregoncharles

      “Why isn’t the nursery asking for a $ deposit to encourage return for reuse.”

      I can answer that. It’s because used pots can spread plant diseases, and sterilizing them is, at best, a pain in the neck, as well as more expensive than new pots. I’ve done it, and the project didn’t last long.

      That said, I reuse pots constantly, and some nurseries will take them back for reuse, especially the bigger ones. For smaller ones, biodegradable fiber pots may be a better bet. Just plant them – after slashing the fiber.

      Reply
      1. marieann

        I always use bleach on my pots, I wash them in hot soapy water with a splash of bleach, I have been doing this for about 25 years…never had any diseases (fingers crossed).
        One of our nursery’s takes back old pots, I doubt they reuse them.They have them sitting on shelves and anyone can help themselves and I have taken a few to use and also returned a few.

        I find the best way to reduce my need for spare pots is to grow my own using the ones I have, that’s why I keep mine clean.

        Reply
    2. Phillip Allen

      Why, at the least, doesn’t the county want black # 2 in their recycle stream?

      Black plastic can be recycled only into other black plastic items, which in turn means it has less value as a feed stock for further manufactures. Most recycling systems across the country reject black plastic because they can’t sell the stuff, and its presence in mixed plastics can result in an entire lot being rejected (as the Chinese have recently done as a matter of national policy – they will no longer accept shipments of recycled plastics than are greater than .5% ‘impure’, said impurity including food waste contamination, inadequately sorted recyclables, etc).

      Reply
  10. Norb

    Thanks for pursuing this important topic. If the repair angle was ever taken seriously by the political class, a true revolution would be born. Capitalism as we know it would would be fundamentally altered. Planned obsolescence is its lifeblood and without that constant need for growth, you don’t have capitalism.

    Maybe a new ruling class can arise out of this human dilemma. Capitalism was born out of the feudal system. What system will be born of necessity out of capitalism? Sustainability and long term thinking will require a different mode of thought and class creation. A whole new industrial system would be needed- one oriented toward quality construction and designed for repair and recycling- not obsolescence. A citizens sensibility would be oriented toward stability and continuity, not changing fad.

    The longevity of tools is a telling point. My wife sews and makes quilts as a hobby, but this principle extends to manufacturing as well. She recently found an old Singer sewing machine from the 1950’s at a second hand store for $30. The machine is of solid construction and still works. In its day, a marvel of engineering, design, and construction. It seems that every part on the machine could be replaced if needed. Now, to use this machine to produce clothing, you need the education and skill of sewing, along with support if it breaks down. A 60 year old machine can still perform its needed function if the proper support network was in place- spares and skilled repair personal.

    In my professional life, printing machines that once had a productive life of 12 years now are effectively reduced to 3.

    Real world human innovation is designing tools to do a specific job and do it sustainably in the environment in which one lives. Today we are designing tools and work relationships not so much to supply goods and services, but to maintain the social hierarchy.

    The 4Rs represent a return to a more meaningful form of social development. It is a rejection of gluttony and wasted energy.

    And you are absolutely right, it begins at home and a person can start immediately. It is a state of mind- then action.

    Only when citizens demand better products, and don’t buy the inferior products offered, will any change be possible.

    I recently read an old Firefox article about poor mountain people in Appalachia making their own violins. Just think what might be possible if those left behind by the corporate domination of our economy decide to take things into their own hands and build a fair sustainable economy.

    I say – look out.

    Reply
    1. paintedjaguar

      Planned obsolescence and mandatory growth are evil but our economy is no longer based on industrial production. I don’t know that it ever was, really. We live in a system that is fundamentally about rent extraction and any reform or reorientation is going to stumble over that fact.

      Reply
  11. ambrit

    These products are the logical result of a ‘commercialist’ mindset. A majority of ‘things’ produced today are designed for maximum return, to the producers thereof and the money changers that enable the system.
    This mindset also is applied to humans in the economy. Trained and skilled operators are now discarded in favour of cheaper, if less polished and skilled, labour units. This has been a central pillar of the great fortunes. Cheap migrants and visa holders displace local workers. Instead of really retraining the displaced workers, a mantra of the exploiting class, pure “benign neglect” is now the rediscovered method which affords the maximum return to investors. Retraining is thus shown to be a Side Show House of Smoke and Mirrors. It is there to distract and confuse.
    So, let us beware of Pseudo Repair rules expected to be offered up as ‘solutions’ for the problem.

    Reply
  12. Oregoncharles

    On a connected topic: I have a petition/open letter to the State of Oregon on the subject of reuse of containers. The Board of Health has just suppressed an exemplary reuse program on the pretext of the health code. I want as many Oregon signatures on it as I can get, so if Yves doesn’t mind I’ll bring it to the Meetup.

    Reply
  13. Pavel

    I visit Japan fairly frequently on holiday and although the gods know it is not perfect by any means it has many endearing qualities. One of these is what might be called the “longevity of use” of various items. In a favourite sushi bar in Tsukiji for instance the staff are using pots and pans and kettles that look 20 years old. A simple philosophy of not discarding things while they still work.

    This is in marked contrast with the US (especially) and other Western countries where the advertising-led media encourage people to buy new cars, new fridges, new smartphones, new whatever every few years. And of course Apple et al build in planned obsolescence and make it almost impossible for people even to replace batteries. Grrrr.

    Reply
    1. oh

      They have a different kind of racket going on in Japan. Automobiles have to inspected every 5 (?) years. The inspection shops reject the autos for various reasons and this is part of the plan to make people buy new cars. Repairs are prohibitively expensive by design. They have their own version of throw away economy.

      Reply
    2. Oregoncharles

      Personally, I blame my use-it-till-you-can’t attitude on stingy Scottish ancestors, not Japanese.

      Reply
      1. Enquiring Mind

        Along those lines, a favorite Letter to the Editor:

        “If you don’t stop writing about frugal Scots, I’ll stop borrowing your newspaper.”

        Reply
  14. oh

    It’s necessary to add to the 4 R’s:

    Regulate
    Reject (Refuse to buy)
    Retaliate against these companies by boycotting them

    The neo-liberals will not Regulate these oligopolies ; most people won’t Reject or Retaliate and keep feeding these gluttons.

    Reply
  15. Carl

    I own a 1952 Chambers gas stove. It has enormous firepower (you’d need a true commercial stove to compete with it), a deep well burner, a broiler, and an oven that’s so well-insulated that you can literally turn off the gas halfway through and it will still bake whatever’s in it. It came with a warranty of 25 years (I have the paperwork), and cost me a total of $400.00 on Craigslist. Now that’s well-made. We don’t do this any more.

    Reply
  16. Zachary Smith

    Several years ago some relatives bought a toaster oven at a discount store. It worked for a short while, then conked out. Since these things are about as simple as anything around, I took it apart to check it out. First thing I spotted was a thumb-sized sealed nodule in one wire of the power line – it was just inside the metal box. I’d never seen such a critter before, and it didn’t appear to do anything useful, so removed it and reconnected the wire.

    The toaster oven worked again, and continued to do so for a number of years. I’ll never know for sure what it was, but I suspect it was a crude sort of planned obsolescence in the form of a timer to cut off electricity. One which had activated itself a bit too soon.

    Reply
      1. marieann

        Interesting. I researched kettles after ours broke 8 years into it’s life.
        On the cordless ones, which is basically all you can buy now, the failure site is the connection between the stand and the kettle…and they all have the same problem no matter what price you pay.

        So I buy stainless steel plug in ones from the thrift store…usually around 25 years old. Granted they will not shut themselves off but one gets used to that.

        Sadly they are becoming harder to find now that the word is out.

        Reply
        1. J Sterling

          Again and again I have electrical goods fail, not in themselves, but in their power supply, which turns out to have an eccentric voltage not shared by other power supplies, and in any case has a unique connector design. The article is left as dead as if it had failed itself.

          Reply
    1. Jim Young

      I suspect it was a fusible link, designed to protect against too much current/heat (usually designed to be certain to fail before dangerous parts would). I have sometimes substituted other “fuses” as I did with a car battery charger a neighbor gave me back in 1985.

      The most challenging repair was when I found I had to buy a minimum of 5 thermal fuses to get the single replacement I needed to fix our $155 coffee maker. There was a 5 day delay (for the Chinese New Years celebrations, before they would ship them, but (I think) at less than $1 each, I was able to get a few more years of safe operation out of the coffee maker.

      The thermal fuse protected the heating element from getting dangerously hot, which we figured out was due to a calcium build up inside the metal tube through the center of the heating element (it was so uniformly formed that it looked like a manufactured insulator). It took quite a bit of effort to remove the calcium, but we did make the effort, and increased the frequency of running vinegar through it (as a safe acid for “lime” build up reduction/removal). We replaced it with a different design coffee maker after the second thermal fuse blew (too much labor required to repair what was designed and cautioned not to be repairable).

      The thermal fuse was, to me a good design in that it was thermal based protection, and, for safety and insurance reasons, you wouldn’t want just anyone replacing or bypassing the protective element.

      I do like exploring circuits that have failed, or simply poking around to see what improvements have been made in cost effective features. On that coffee pot, I found that they had a very inexpensive (if you buy it from the Chinese source), very simply timed power switch that shut itself off at I think 16.5 minutes. If someone replaced that simple looking switch with a similar physical size switch, but without the automatic shut off, the heating element would stay on too long, the thermal fuse would eventually open the circuit. I surmised a full reservoir would take the longest to cause the thermal fuse to open, since the more water, the longer the temperature would be kept within range. The 16 minute switch seemed to strike a balance in adequate time to heat a full reservoir and not so long that a low water level (maybe even none) would open the thermal fuse.

      I considered getting a simple used dark room timer so I could set the on time of the heating element according to the amount of water I wanted to heat, and adaptable to many other uses where you might want to have an extra layer of control of time (such as charging NiCad batteries, or any other types that require more careful planning or appropriate smart battery tenders designed for the specific battery type).

      My wife opted for a better looking commercial design, though, and I never argue with the chef. All I can do is look for the most easily repairable designs (like I expect farmers will continue pressing for).

      P.S. That old battery charger will destroy AGM Batteries, so I always recommend people get appropriate battery tender types (like Jay Leno has covered in his Jay Leno’s Garage episodes), your batteries will last much longer and sometimes they can restore batteries that ones like my old one can’t.

      The Dark Room Timer buzzer costs $91 dollars if you buy it from a US supply house, $0.71 if you buy it from the Chinese source. I understand mark ups, but that is way too much.

      Reply
  17. sierra7

    Not too many years ago I was reusing envelopes that I received mail in. I would just use those “sticky blanks” and re-address them. After a bit of time the PO got on my case and told me it was “illegal”………so much for sensible recycling!!

    Reply
  18. ej

    Here’s plastic that I’ve never figured out how to reuse: laminated plastic, Formica, the stuff on your countertops. In the ’80’s and ’90’s I used to make countertops and install them in homes, offices, restaurants and retail stores. They aren’t replaced very often. Maybe once every 5 years. But they’re still plastic and they do not recycle – and that includes the particle board that they’re glued to.
    What, exactly does one replace it with – granite or marble mined in Myanmar or India, concrete or glass, butcher-block oak or maple (don’t let a sharp knife edge slice a mark on that)?

    Reply
    1. Spring Texan

      Replaced every five years? Maybe in commercial use. I still have the plastic laminate countertops that were original in my house in 1983. And they are fine.

      Reply
  19. John

    I have mixed feelings about this. For some things repair is absolutely needed: furniture, clothing, homes, windows, bicycles, tires, etc. Electronics, not so much. Right now the pace of change is so fast that a 10 year old device may not be worth repairing whereas a 10 year old table, chair, recliner, bicycle and such are still very useful.

    Do you want to try to repair an old SCSI drive when we are mostly using SSDs? Would you repair a CRT TV which can’t receive broadcast signals even if it works while a new flat panel takes up less space and uses less power? Would you keep alive an old refrigerator that uses 2 or 3 or more kWh a day when a new one uses much less than 1kWh? Would you repair an old car that wastes gas and spews pollution instead of getting a new hybrid?

    For many products, instead of repairability I’d push for them to be easily disassembled so that they can be recycled either in whole or in part. Better to have them easily come apart so that some parts can be recycled rather than the whole thing going into the landfill.

    I would point out that, while not perfect, manufacturing is trying to not use toxic elements such as Pb in products.

    Reply
    1. Clive

      It is a complex question and the correct response is specific to the object under consideration.

      Take the refrigerator — if it is less than 10 years old, there’s not much in efficiency gains between that and a new model. So you’d consider that a valid repair. If it’s older then the running costs might suggest recycling, but if proper disposal facilities in your area don’t exist and it might end up simply being crushed then if it contained a high GWP refrigerant (like R134a with a GWP of 1430, for example) plus other gasses in the blown foam insulation, a repair may still be beneficial and even advantageous compared to the pollution of a land-fill “solution” to disposal of it.

      And if you have invested in efficient products in the first place (and I do appreciate these have higher first costs so this is not an answer for those who are forced into distress purchases and can barely afford the initial outlay or have to go into debt for it) then that makes repair even more sensible a course of action. I just repaired room air conditioner which is rated as 28 SEER that is 8 years old. Even the replacements you can buy today struggle to rival that efficiency. So there wasn’t a “newer products are more efficient” argument there. But there was a cost argument — the repair was to a motorised louvre and the motor was £220. I could do the repair myself having downloaded the service manual but if I’d had to get the service shop to have done it I’d have been looking at around £500 — a brand new installation of a lower spec 20-ish SEER product is less than £1000 so if I hadn’t been able to do the repair myself, I’d have had to question whether spending around £500 for possibly only another 2-3 years life expectancy, 5 at the outside (10 years is reckoned to be the average lifespan for this type of product and the manufacturer only guarantees spare parts availability for 10 years from the time of product purchase and the unit is 8 years old already as I mentioned) was worth it.

      But it is still very important, I think, to evaluate repair as an option — as I did. Like my example, worse-case is I’m break even economically and best case is I might get another 5 years of equipment lifespan at around half the equivalent cost of an inferior replacement product (£1000 for a replacement which I’d depreciate over 10 years is around £100 a year capital cost, but if my £220 repair gives me 5 years of useable life then that annual cost for my repaired unit is less than half that).

      As the post pointed out, unfortunately our cultural norms have descended into not taxing ourselves thinking this out and reasoning on the best approach for each situation but to “just go and buy a new one”.

      Reply
  20. sharonsj

    I went to visit an elderly friend Saturday. He is unable to cook any food because his newish gas stove won’t work; the digital control panel went dead. The cost of replacing it is $400, which I bet is about half of the cost of the entire stove. His caretaker, after seeing what my friend is dealing with, deliberately went in search of an old-style non-digital gas stove for his own house.

    I also have a gas stove with digital controls. If I lose electricity, which is common in the country, I am unable to get the stove to work, even though I have plenty of propane. I paid a lot of money for my stove ($2000) so I’m not about to chuck it, but I discovered the stove top is not easily removable so I can’t clean the burners, and now one of the ovens isn’t working right. My stove is only five years old. To say that I am unhappy is an understatement.

    Reply
  21. cripes

    When the warranty expired years ago on my 2003 Toyota, I started doing more repairs myself. Quickly I learned that diagnosing the actual repair needed was the key. Stealerships and mechanics will throw a part in and “see if it works” esp pricey stuff like catalytic convertors at $1200, when a simple gasket leak repair or less pricey O2 sensor might do it.

    Basically captive consumers without equal knowledge preyed upon by dealers pumping out parts and profits that surpasses car sales.

    Yesterday I completed spark plug, ignition coil, valve cover gasket and PCV valve for $79 that was quoted at $267. Better parts, too.

    It’s time consuming and there is a learning curve, but I get to keep more of my own money and take control of my machine(s). Too often we are at the mercy of “tech” designed to fail and generate sales rather than owning machines that are built for a realistic life-cycle and capable of restoration.

    2-3 generations ago people wouldn’t think of throwing away a knife, opting to sharpen the blade, repair the handle and patronize the local knife grinder.

    Reply
  22. TheMog

    (Maybe) playing devil’s advocate here…

    If you’re looking at something complex like a computer, a TV (which is basically a computer these days) or a car (which is basically a computer with wheels), diagnosing an issue down to the component level takes both time and experience. When it comes to electronics, most likely also a bunch of expensive tools. Your mechanic may drive an older beater (at least the one I take my cars to for repairs I don’t want to do myself does), but his toolkit most likely cost more than your average car. Electronic tools for proper diagnosis of circuit board issues (ie, the stuff that goes beyond multimeters, oscilloscopes and logic analysers) tends to be “not cheap” either, and that’s before we’re talking about the specialised tools needed for actual repairs.

    At the same time, corporations are less willing to pay people to get trained and to pay extra for experienced people with the right sort of skills.

    Put the two together and it makes sense from the corporate point of view to just make everything out of a handful of large (expensive) components that are not to be designed to be repairable themselves, but can be swapped out by a couple of semi-trained simians. Makes a lot of sense specifically if you’re already complaining that those pesky simians are so expensive it hurts shareholder value and your time horizon is the next quarter.

    With cars – I don’t know enough about tractors to comment – there’s also the additional issue that OEMs are under a lot of pressure from governmental entities to make emissions-related controls as “unhackable” as possible.

    That means that ECUs (electronic control unit, basically the computer that amongst other things runs the engine) are potentially coded to the VIN or other identfiers unique to a particular vehicle(and require specialist tools to recode that aren’t available outside the main dealers) and potentially other computers in the car.

    So forget about swapping your busted ECU for one from the junk yard without paying a nice wedge to the main dealer (who hopefully still has the diagnostic kit to do the work, because the ECU probably won’t fail for 15-20 years). At least some OEMs I’m aware of are encrypting the code and data in the ECU so third party diagnosis and manipulation (other than what you have to be able to do via OBD2) is harder to do. While this may be good from a compliance and emissions point of view, it also puts up another barrier to repair. Plus of course it is software, so even if you own the vehicle that is currently suffering from a bricked computer, the manufacturer only grants you a restrictive “license” for the software.

    Obviously there are workarounds – there are aftermarket ECUs, mostly for motorsports, that can control a fair number of older, non-hybrid vehicles. But those are usually not legal for road use on an emissions controlled vehicle and aren’t usually that easy to install and configure for the layperson, either. Not to mention that they also tend to be expensive.

    Reply
    1. Mrs. Mop

      Thanks drumlin for the link! I live in Frankfurt/Germany where we have these repair cafes since a couple of years. They are the best, most ingenious thing since the invention of sliced bread, I swear. Almost each borrough of Frankfurt has its own repair cafe, and they meet every 4 to 6 weeks at a fixed community location. In my own borrough it’s a nursery home with an open space like a cafeteria. People show up even without something broken, have a coffee, enjoy meeting other people and chatter along, sitting at the tables with those repair specialists, commenting on everything, all in a very relaxed atmosphere.

      Myself, I had already some old lamps repaired. The best coup has been my broken electric kitchen blender which I use and depend on heavily. The repair guy took it completely apart, checked each detail and found the flaw – that’s where the upper bowl part connects to the electric bottom – and he told me: This is the typical point of weakness in every blender, because high vulnerability coming from little food particles or oil etc. He fixed it. Cleaned it. In the moment I heard the familiar sound of the motor buzzing again, finally, I was yelling with enthusiasm. It’s a priceless (really!!) feeling of joy having something functioning again which you’d thought had been gone forever.

      You’d hear these shout-outs of joy all over the place, each time at the repair cafe, when a broken device starts to work again. It gives the whole place such an uplifted mood, people become almost high. So, it’s not just about repairing things – which is the core part, of course – on top of that, it really brings people together, completely strange persons start to enjoy each other’s company.

      P.S. Please apologize the not very perfect English. German native speaking here.

      Reply

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