By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The pandemic has caused people to spend more time in their homes, inflicting greater wear and tear on their electronics and other household appliances.
In previous right to repair posts, I’ve stressed the environmental benefits that follow both from reducing electronics waste, as well as not producing unnecessary items in the first place.
When devices wear down, consumers are now faced with the choice of replacing them, or repairing them – if a repair service can be found, to make the repair at a reasonable price.
U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), which spearheads a right to repair campaign, earlier this month released a report, Repair Saves Families Big, on the cost savings that opting to repair rather than replace items could bring, .
Nonetheless, despite these cost advantages, according to the U.S. PIRG report:
When our older devices need repair, we might be convinced that it’s easier or better to just replace them. After all, the “new and improved” versions will be better, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and the products we buy are coming with shorter and shorter lifespans (citations omitted).
The US PIRG study emphasised two types of economic benefits to repair: repairs cost less, and repair services tend to be local businesses, whereas new purchases make the consumer yet another link in extensive global supply chains.
Cost Savings: Repair saves Money Compared to Replacemen
U.S. PIRG research shows that in 2019, U.S. households spent an average of about $1,480 purchasing new electronic products per year, including major and small appliances, and comprising 24 pieces of electronics. With products increasingly digital, consumers are shelling out more for products in their homes. These purchases aren’t for the long-term; rather, consumers find they are replacing electronics more frequently than in the past.
U.S. PIRG emphasizes:
Repair saves money – more than you might think. When the cost of repair inches toward the cost of replacement, it might seem like buying the new product is cheaper. But fixing the product and extending its lifespan leads to big savings.
Repair could reduce household spending on electronics and appliances by 22 percent, which would save an average family approximately $330 per year.
This means that across 122 million national households,6 repair could save Americans a total of $40 billion annually.
Repair Benefits Local Businesses, Rather than Global Supply Chains
U.S. PIRG has identified a second economic benefit for repair compared to replacement: repair services are usually locally-operated, so by opting for repair, a consumer is contributing to the local economy rather than the global supply chain that produces most consumer electronics.
Repair is the More Sustainable Choice, as It Reduces Waste
Regular readers won’t be surprised to see me highlighting again that repair reduces waste, and is therefore the more sustainable choice. Per the report:
The cost of replacing broken laptops, refrigerators, and other electronic products can be burdensome, not only to family budgets, but the environment as well. The average American family generates about 176 pounds of electronic waste each year, and nationally, the United States generates 6.9 million tons of electronic waste.
When we throw out an electronic product that can be repaired, we contribute to the fastest growing waste stream in the world,4 while adding toxic elements such as lead, mercury, and cadmium into our landfills (citations omitted).
Much of this electronic waste ends up in landfills. Some is recycled. While some is reused – not so much stays stateside, but is instead exported, as there is a lively trade in used electronics. In fact, after seeing a review in The American Conservative, The Fascinating Second Lives Of Stuff, I ordered a copy of Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, a new Bloomsbury book, and am looking forward to starting it after I finish this post. Will report back the next time I post on right to repair.
Adopting broad U.S. right to repair provisions should mean that some items that currently end up in U.S. landfills wouldn’t. It might also mean that waste that’s currently exported – to places that presently have thriving repair cultures – would stay here as well.
Whereas reusing something elsewhere in the world is probably a better option than chucking it in a U.S. landfill, this reuse option does impose its own environmental cost: that of shipping the item to another destination. Finding new homes for items closer to their old ones would reduce the carbon footprint of that ownership transfer. But in order to do so, it’s necessary to improve the U.S. repair culture, so that items don’t have to make their way to places that can and will fix them.
“We make, use, and toss an unsustainable amount of stuff in the U.S.,” said Nathan Proctor, U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign director, when we spoke over ZOOM. “The first step towards fixing this is finding a way to use our stuff longer and therefore make less stuff. The planet can’t take it anymore – our current approach not only hits our pocketbooks today but is creating a long-term ecological catastrophe, for us and future generations.”