In a world where nearly everything is replaceable it’s not easy to hang on to that fix-it-yourself mentality.
I don’t know why I prefer things be fixed rather than thrown away, but I am clearly an anachronism. The proof is in my basement.
There you’ll find a true odd couple: a brand-new, Samsung high-efficiency washing machine – our third washer in 10 years (more on that in a bit).
And next to it, still chugging away happily, daily, is a gas-heated Inglis dryer that was in our East End Toronto house in 1991 when we moved in. Apparently, it’s been there since the ‘70s.
The dryer has needed exactly two repairs in 26 years. In both cases, it was a drum, which, the last time around, cost me $250, tax and labour included. Both times, the repairman patted the thing and said something like, “Don’t ever let this go.”
Now let’s talk washer. This summer, our eight-year-old LG, four years past its extended warranty, emitted a burnt-rubber smell that insinuated its way through the house. Then it ceased functioning with a loud thunk.
As I say, I believe in second chances. So, I first called the guy who’d repaired our dryer. He told me his hands were tied by proprietary rights and he was not allowed to work on an LG. I’d have to find a brand-certified repairman on the website. I did, and it was explained that I’d be in for $130 whether the appliance was fixable or not (if it was, the money would go toward the final bill).
The verdict: The washing machine needed, ahem, a new drum. Unlike the dryer’s drum, however, this one had computer components and the repair would cost at least $700. Maybe more, depending on the labour (the drum was deliberately awkwardly placed, I was told). In other words, just about the cost of a new one. The repairman agreed a repair was not in the cards, and was set to walk away with $130 for five minutes work.
“Let me ask you,” I said as he packed up. “Do you ever actually fix these things?”
“Not very often,” he admitted. “The way they make them now, it’s almost always cheaper to just buy a new one.”
“That’s a pretty sweet gig,” I said, only mildly bitterly. “You’re a repairman who gets paid not to repair things.”
If you’re reading this, you probably remember the ads featuring the “lonely” Maytag repairman, played by Jesse White and later, by WKRP’s Gordon Jump (lonely because, ostensibly, Maytags practically never needed repairing).
Welcome to the 21st Century version of the Maytag guy, a repairman who still seldom repairs anything, but keeps himself busy delivering bad news.
To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are no second acts in the lives of North American consumer goods. The result is landfills that are filled with last year’s iPhones, working printers that sell brand-new for less than the cost of replacement ink cartridges, tents and sleeping bags that were thrown out because they smelled “musty” (hint: take them out of the basement and leave them outside for a while), etc.
If you saw the documentary Manufactured Landscapes, about photo artist Ed Burtynski’s global obsession with man-made “geography,” slag-heaps, landfills, etc., you might be haunted as I was by the sight of aged Chinese women scraping away the rare earth metals off motherboards in the middle of miles and miles of computer waste from all over the world. Cadmium from the dump had seeped into the water table, poisoning it.
Burtynsky told me he discovered the site because he was set to shoot a 25-acre computer waste dump near Hamilton, but was told that since he’d last seen it, the e-waste had been shipped away.
“Where do you send 25 acres of computer waste?” he asked. China, it turned out.
It happens that I was a late addition to parents who’d lived through the Depression. And it’s disingenuous to say I don’t know where my “fix it” ethic comes from. The year I was born, my parents bought their first TV, a 26-inch black-and-white Fairbanks-Morse.
When I was 8, my dad showed me how to fix the TV when it would cease functioning or go wonky. I would open up the back, put all the vacuum tubes in an egg carton, walk it over to the tube-testing machine at the drug store, find the bum tube and buy a replacement for 79 cents.
I have yet to meet anyone my age who’s done this.
It was the late ‘60s, tubes were going out of style (pushed aside by solid-state circuitry and transistors), as were tube testing machines. But the urge to prolong the life of things stayed with me. Some years ago, a neighbor switched to gas from propane for his barbecue and tossed out his old Weber. Rusty as it was, its insides, venturi tubes and such, were in pretty good shape – much better, at least than what was inside my own nearly-identical Weber ‘cue. An hour or so of surgery, and mine instantly had five or six years added to its working life.
“Who are you, MacGyver?” a colleague snarked when I proudly recounted my recycling tale.
“Hey, it’s a freakin’ Weber!” I told him. (They can be two or three times the price of similar lesser-name grills).
Lest this sound entirely like a whinge about the way-things-used-to-be, I do see signs of a brighter future, disposability-wise.
For starters, cars are lasting longer. An American Automobile Association study found that the average car on the road is a record 11.5 years old. Car-owners would have a pretty good idea why. All those computerized sensors – the same ones that are so expensive to replace – actually do a pretty good job of keeping tabs on basic maintenance needs. There are warning lights for everything, which is an improvement on the old method of waiting for your car to make alarmingly loud clanking noises. It has occurred to me that I haven’t had a car break down on the road for 20 years.
By contrast, breakdowns were a rather common occurrence when I was a teen and I’d start my reluctant auto by opening the air filter and propping open the choke with a pen top.
Even more gratifying is that the go-to excuse for not repairing something – “We don’t have parts”- may itself be rendered obsolete by 3-D printing technology.
My older son is an engineering major, learning to digitally design engines and airplane wings. But I was never prouder of his skills than when he “fixed” an IKEA bookshelf that was missing one of those bizarre half-screw/half-bolt connectors, by recreating the little widget on a 3-D printer at school.
As the Swedes would say, “Fixa det själv” (Fix it yourself).