Sunday, 14 September 2014

Why don’t we repair things more often?

It is often said that we live in a throw away society. When things break, even if in quite a minor way, we usually replace them rather than mending them. You have a shirt with a frayed cuff, or a pair of trousers with a stuck zip. Maybe someone sat on your book reader and cracked the screen, or your toaster is stuck and doesn’t spring up any more. All of these things are usually easy to repair but we usually don’t bother, because (we think) getting a new one is going to be cheaper in the long run, or less hassle, or because we quite want a new one anyway. But quite apart from the tremendous waste, these things are often not true. Repair can be cheaper, and less hassle, and a new one may not be any better than the old one.
Suppose your shirt has a frayed cuff. 
Obviously you like this shirt, because otherwise you would not have worn it enough to get the cuffs frayed. Equally obviously you will never be able to find a new one the same. However, someone with a little skill with a needle can turn the cuffs, or replace them with contrasting material for an even snazzier look.  Here is some is advice about how to fix them.

 My trousers have a stuck zip.
You can probably get a new zip for £2-3. That has to be less than the cost of the trousers. Again, it doesn’t take that much skill with a needle to replace a zip. Here is some advice.

My fridge doesn’t work any more
Maybe it has a duff thermostat. A new fridge will cost a few hundred pounds. A new thermostat could cost as little as £10. If you are handy you can fit it yourself. There is lots of advice, including videos, on the internet on how to do this. Here are two useful links but there are many others: How to change the thermostat on a Bosch refrigerator (video) and DIY fridge repair guide.

 I’ve sat on my tablet/phone/ebook reader and cracked the screen
 The cheapest Kindle costs only about £60 and you are unlikely to get a professional repair for less than that. However you can sometimes get replacement screens for £20-£30 on eBay and for more expensive kit such as smart phones a replacement screen can be a lot cheaper then buying new. Plus you don’t have to go through the pain of configuring a new phone with your mail accounts and apps.

So why don’t we fix them?
The trouble with repairs like this is that getting a professional to do it can be expensive, because labour costs are much more expensive here than in the developing countries where most of our kit is made. In Bangladesh people are paid just a few pence/hour whereas here we expect at least ten times as much. Even though repairing it doesn’t take as long as making it from scratch, this isn’t enough to offset the difference in wages. Of course doing it yourself costs nothing in cash terms but not many people are confident enough to do that.

Do we really want to be completely dependent on third world manufacturing expertise for all our essential luxuries?
Apparently not, judging by the number of people involved in running Repair Cafés, Restart Parties and so on, all round the world. These are events where you can get stuff fixed or learn how to do it yourself. If you live near Cambridge then you may have heard about the one in May run by Transition Cambridge, Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Greeniversity.  There is one coming on Saturday September 20th in Cottenham  and there is a Restart Party planned for Tuesday September 30th.  Restart parties focus on electronics but it is usually the mechanical bits that fail – like the screen, or the buttons. I think you will find theses stories amusing and inspirational.

Many people love really old things – like antique furniture and books – but new acquisitions lose their appeal almost as soon as we possess them. Got a new phone? It will be obsolete in three months. If it is the pace of innovation that makes it pointless to mend old things then perhaps we need less of it – or rather less of it in consumer goods and more of it in areas that really matter, like energy efficiency, storage and travel. When we mend our possessions rather than buying new, we stop feeding the throw away society and start building up our own skills and resourcefulness. Plus, when we’ve taken the trouble to fix something it becomes more personally ours and we’ll get more pleasure using it.

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