Saturday, April 19, 2008

Turning Back the Tide on Disposable Appliances

The Globe & Mail recently published an article encouraging people to repair and reuse their belongings rather than throw them away; unfortunately, the article focused on things like silver tea services ("hammer out dents!"), leather luggage ("restitch and replace zippers") and designer shoes. What could have been a useful article was just another distraction from the real issues.

A far better take on the same theme was published recently by Intervention magazine: in Junkland, William Marvel takes on appliances, computers, and printers. Appliance manufacturers only produce spare parts for a particular model for ten years, and the computer industry is all about forcing people to upgrade every few years.

It’s easy to make the argument that consumers should pay more for better, longer lasting appliances, but it’s not that simple anymore. I have a high-end Bosch dishwasher that is 7 years old; I have had it repaired twice in the last 8 months and as it is starting to act up again, I am probably going to have to replace it. The appliance expert on CBC's Radio Noon phone-in said a few weeks ago that it’s difficult these days to find any appliance that is reliable and long-lasting. Reviews of cars and appliances rarely - if ever - estimate longevity.

Hardware longevity is only part of why appliances don’t last as long as they should. Consumers discard appliances not only because they are broken, but also because new models come out that offer different functionality, or because they just want something new. Poor government programs are also a factor: it would be interesting to know how many perfectly good appliances have been discarded because of government incentive programs to promote energy efficiency.

Here’s an estimate of the lifespan of things we buy for our home; with government regulation and public education, we could increase these numbers. In our global world, a small market like Canada may have limited options. We need better national regulations, but we also need global standards. Here are some suggestions for what we can do:

1. Manufacturers - Set standards for how long appliances should last. Require manufacturers to keep parts for longer periods. Engage manufacturers in discussions of how to improve longevity (for example, the same plastic part keeps breaking on my mother’s newish Maytag dishwasher; the repairmen tell her that until recently this was a durable metal part, and now they replace them all the time). Give rankings to appliances that last longer and are easier to repair - just as we rank appliances on energy efficiency.

2. Disposal – Electronic waste is the major toxic waste problem in North America, according to this report. We should improve ways that discarded appliances can be reused. Also, we need to be smarter about handling toxic waste. My local dump charges $10 per item for electronic equipment, which just encourages people to hide their old VCR or CD player in a garbage bag. We need curbside pickup for batteries and fluorescent lightbulbs, along with better public education.

3. Consumers - Globe columnist Margaret Wente wrote a really insightful column about smoking a while back; she said that the thing that finally convinced her to quit smoking was that it became declassé. She had tried for years to quit and took the health warnings very seriously, but it was when she was at a party and had to huddle outside on a cold porch with some other addicts that she finally had the incentive to give it up. Likewise, we should use public education to try to make a dent in our rabid consumerism. We may never destroy the sense of satisfaction and status that comes with owning something new and expensive, but we must try to counter it.

4. Smarter technology - I see promotions like this one (a product that claims to reduce electricity costs by 30%) and wish there were better public education about serious ways to improve our consumption. Does this thing really work? When you google it, there are no hits except for the manufacturer. We seem to be constantly bombarded by suggestions that trivialize environmentalism and distract us from real improvements (as this Greenwashing site tries to counter). We are not going to make any headway by diverting funds to green rooves or by hammering out dents in our silver tea services. Time magazine writes: "According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 75% of all the electricity consumed in the home is standby power used to keep electronics running when those TVs, DVRs, computers, monitors and stereos are "off."" The situation is similar in offices, where computers are regularly left on overnight. Surely there is a technological solution?


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