Friday, September 5, 2014

Fending off disposeability

I recently fixed Julie's dehydrator and thought of how many people must have things break down on them that they simply throw away. Some things are big and expensive enough it's worthwhile economically to hire someone to fix them, but by and large I would guess most products that break get thrown away. Fixing these products would take a few circumstances aligning—understanding how the product works, knowing how to troubleshoot the problem, and being able to find a replacement part for the part that went bad. Many, probably most, products made these days were never intended to be fixed; yet another great characteristic of our short-sighted capitalist system is to ensure customers are always in need and coming back for more.

The fried dehydrator thermostat
I have to say the situation's gotten really bad.  And it seems that every year things gets worse and worse with the planned obsolescence.  Products these days don't last nearly as long as those made even ten years ago. If you read product reviews in trying to make a purchase, everyone says, “the last one I had lasted 15 years, and this one lasted a few months.” That most products are made in China isn't helping. As more companies move their production overseas it becomes more difficult to find anything of good quality. Outsourcing production saves on labor costs and reduces costs related to workplace safety and environmental regulations etc. The increased profit margin must make these companies foam at the mouth for even more profit. While they're at it they figure, "Why not take the opportunity to cut costs by reducing quality?". 

I bought a pair of Columbia sandals last year that lasted less than a month. The straps just came right out of the soles—something you would expect would have been accounted for in the manufacture. I've given up on even wearing sandals because a pair that lasts long enough to make buying them worthwhile just doesn't exist anymore. And it's the same way with a lot of footware. The shoe store saleperson said that getting a year and a half out of a $120 pair of boots is pretty good. One wonders if we'll get to the point where it will be the norm for everything to last only a month before it breaks. “wow, that car you bought lasted a month? That's pretty good.” Americans go for the cheapest products, but they don't realize that what they are saving up front they are paying for in a vastly shortened product lifetime. They end up paying a lot more in the long run.
Fortunately, there are still a number of things that are easily fixed by simple troubleshooting. Surprisingly, replacement parts can be found for many appliances, electronics, and tools. I had the switch go on my circular saw about a year after I got it and was able to find a replacement for it online. I'd also nicked the power cord and was able to find a new one of those for it too. After taking out several screws and accessing the innards, I installed the new parts and the thing was working like new. Julie's dehydrator had been left out in the rain plugged in and the thermostat ended up getting fried. The knob had also melted. The replacement parts were about $45 including shipping, so in a couple ways it was worth fixing.  It was just a matter of opening up the case, pulling out the old charred thermostat, and replacing it with a new one. The fuse looked fine and both the heating element and fan were confirmed to work with just a few electrical connections made.  The motor on my cordless drill driver went and a replacement motor was found online. I've fixed my computers many times by ordering replacement parts and watching a few youtube videos. Some products just need regular maintenance to last longer but they don't get it because people don't bother to read the owner's manual and follow maintenance guidelines.

Of course, not all appliances are so easy to fix. Some troubleshooting of Julie's window air conditioner found it to have been emptied of all freon. The coils that normally circulate freon were no longer getting cold when the thing was on. An air conditioner with a major component of such poor quality it only lasts about a season and a half, after which the entire hunk of plastic and metal has to be thrown away, is a great example of a waste of resources. These products may make some money for the company, Haier, that sells them, but they are a drain on our economy. I tried to fix a plugin drill that looked to be made of pretty cheap materials. The problem appeared to be that the motor needed new brushes, but after installing the new brushes the drill seemed to be so cheap it still wasn't working reliably. The drill otherwise seemed in good shape, but was now going to the landfill.

In the past, many things were built to last. In recent decades we've seen the desire to manufacture quality inched out by the desire to offer a lower price. Products could be built to last a lot longer than they do, but in our short-term focused economy, consumers and corporations will never be interested in these longer-life products. 
There are a few companies left that make really good quality products and there are still niche markets for long-life products.  The digging fork I got to replace a "Home Depot special" whose fork separated from the handle shortly after I got it, was made by the only commercial small-scale forge left in England.  The metal and handle are designed and made with quality in mind, and the tool is likely to last a very long time. You might think that $85 is a lot for a garden fork, but how many $30 "Home Depot specials" will I go through in the lifetime of this one fork. Judging by the last one I got, about 30-40. I've been using it for two years now and it looks little different from the day I got it, despite many hours of garden bed cultivation.  Julie has an idea for a company called Nagmaster that would build really good quality products (specifically gardening tools).  The company mascot is an old lady gardener with the passion of the Protestant work ethic in her bones who admonishes  "If you're still alive, you aren't working hard enough!"

The fork and ferrule are one piece of thick metal, making the
tool super strong and durable
One day in the future, humanity will look back on this brief era of abundance and wonder how we could have squandered it all so fast. Provided they have enough energy to do so, future societies will be mining landfills for the same stuff they carelessly tossed out decades earlier. With peak copper (the halfway point in global copper supplies) fast approaching and a very complex economy and social structure dependent on copper-filled electronics, we will regret having been so careless.  There are many other rare earth metals being used in everything from motherboards to solar panels, and though the products are being built as if supplies are unlimited, the reality is that there aren't enough of these materials to feed a globally connected growing world population for very long.  What will happen to our communications grid when these raw materials dwindle?  What will happen to the conveniences we've become so accustomed to?



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