I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Planned obsolescence and shoddy products mean that we are creating mountains of garbage that are choking the planet. There is another way; it involves making consumer goods that can be repaired and teaching consumers how to fix broken items.
Products' Short Lifespans
Scott Garrett is an appliance technician in Bristol, Connecticut. He told The Hartford Courant that 40 years ago, people would buy an appliance “once and have it forever.” Today, dishwashers, microwaves, and the like are unlikely to last more than a decade.
Appliances are now much cheaper to buy, and they are way more energy-efficient than their past counterparts were. The downside is that when they break down, they end up in landfills or dumped by the side of the road.
The Global E-waste Monitor reports that “A record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21 percent in just five years.” A German study found that “the proportion of defective devices being replaced by consumers grew from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012” (European Environmental Bureau).
However, there’s a movement that works to divert broken appliances from waste streams by repairing them.
Meet Martine Postma, a former Dutch journalist. Her beat was sustainability and reducing waste. She says “I wanted to do more than just write about it. More and more people don’t feel good about our throw-away society and are ready for change. [They] don’t throw away because they want to, but because they don’t know what else to do.”
In 2009, she opened what was called a “repair café” in Amsterdam. It was a huge success. Volunteer fixers help people repair their coffee makers, vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, and laptops.
The Repair Café Foundation reports that “A typical repair café has one repair meeting per month, at which an average of 25 objects are examined. On average 70 percent of these repairs are successful.” During 2019, the organization says its repairs diverted 420,000 kilos (926,000 lbs) of products from the garbage.
There are now more than 2,000 repair cafés worldwide, the vast majority of them in Europe. The concept does not seem to have caught on in North America, with fewer than half a dozen locations noted in the United States.
“If something is broken, the first reaction should be: this should be mended.”
— Martine Postma
Index of Repairability
Concepts such as repair cafés are helped along by legislation in Europe. On January 1, 2021, France became the first country in the world to rate consumer products according to how easy or difficult they are to repair.
Items such as lawnmowers, televisions, and smartphones are now graded on a scale of 1 to 10. The three factors that go into the grading are:
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- ease of disassembly,
- price and availability of spare parts, and
- access to repair manuals.
In 2024, a durability index will kick in that measures the robustness and life expectancy of products.
The notion of such ratings is popular in Europe where a 2018 European Commission study found that almost two-thirds of the continent’s population would rather repair their products than buy replacements.
Adèle Chasson of the Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (Halt Obsolescence Program) writes that one “objective is to create competition between manufacturers to design more repairable products in order to obtain the best grade.” She adds that “the index should help extend the lifespan of products in the interest of the environment but also of consumers’ wallets.”
This is a brand new concept and will need to be tweaked as flaws appear in practice. One such hurdle might be that companies are allowed to rate themselves, so without inspection, the index of repairability could be wide open to mischief. However, a company caught lying about its rating could suffer major consumer rejection.
The plan is to expand the index to a wide range of products, such as batteries, textiles, and furniture, and it will likely be adopted in more European countries.
A Plus for the Environment
By repairing rather than throwing away, the world’s environment gets a much-needed boost. The European Environmental Bureau has studied how repairs might reduce carbon emissions. In 2019, the organization reported that “Our analysis shows that extending the lifetime of all washing machines, notebooks, vacuum cleaners, and smartphones in the EU by just one year would save around four million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2030, the equivalent of taking over two million cars off the roads for a year.”
It should also cut into the pile of electronic garbage that so-called advanced economies dump in developing countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, and the Philippines. This is expected to hit 52 million tonnes in 2021 as estimated by the International Telecommunication Union. Most of the countries receiving the developed world’s trash do not have the capacity to deal with it properly. Diverting the crud through repairs would be a great benefit for the planet and people.
- About 90 percent of Europe’s adults have a mobile phone. However, a study commissioned by the European Economic and Social Committee notes that by current estimates, “only between 12 percent and 15 percent of mobile phones are properly recycled in Europe.”
- The third Saturday in October is designated International Repair Day.
- The Phoebus Cartel was an agreement in the 1920s among light bulb manufacturers to limit the life expectancy of the products they made. There’s more on this story here.
- “Lifespan of Major Appliances Not What It Used to Be.” Sarah Wesley Lemire, Hartford Courant, January 10, 2017.
- “Global E-Waste Monitor 2020.”
- “Meet Our Fixing Hero: Martine Postma – Founder of the Repair Café.” Sugru.com, undated.
- “Behavioural Study on Consumers’ Engagement in the Circular Economy Final Report.” European Commission, October 2018.
- “Repair Cafés Prevent 420,000 Kilos of Waste in 2019.”Repaircafe.org, December 14, 2020.
- “French Repairability Index: What to Expect in January?” Adèle Chasson, repair.eu, November 3, 2020.
- “Cool Products Don’t Cost the Earth.” European Environmental Bureau, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 13, 2021:
John. This blog has a list of Aussie repair cafes at the end.
Ann Carr from SW England on February 13, 2021:
I did an article some time back on built-in obsolescence. I guess manufacturers need to do something about that too. It's good that repair cafes exist. I'm lucky in that my partner mends just about anything or builds something new! Sadly, we are a throw-away culture but at least people are beginning to realise we need to stop that before it's too late - and we are on the brink!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 12, 2021:
I support this idea of repairing instead of casting off things that could be repaired. It is true that appliances and many other things used to last longer. It is sad that we have become accustomed to a throwaway mentality. We recycle as much as humanly possible to avoid waste. I am glad that these repair cafes are gaining in popularity.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 12, 2021:
This "throw-away" mentality sure gets me riled. I recycle anything that I am capable of fixing myself. The trouble with returning broken items back to the manufacturer or seller for repairs usually costs you more than buying a replacement item. This effectively discourages people from having things repaired.
It annoys me that you often pay more for ink cartridges than for an actual printer/photocopier. This encourages people to just go and buy another printer (cartridges included) rather than purchase replacement ink cartridges.
I would welcome repair cafes in Australia.