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MAY 2012 (links updated 2014): You may be good at reducing, reusing and recycling. But what do you do when something breaks? If you're a good earth steward, the answer is: "Repair."

The 4th R: REPAIR
Waste reduction's missing link

I grew up in the 1960s in a family where no one knew how to fix things. My parents didn't feel they had the knack. When something broke, they went to the repairman. If they couldn't find a repairman, they went to the store. Compared to the Mr. Fixits around us (and they did all seem to be "misters" back then), we looked and felt like wastrels.

Today, my old family would fit right in.

In this brave new world, the very idea of repair has become passé. People neither fix things themselves nor take them to repair shops. Big ticket items, such as cars, are the exception. But toasters and TVs? Why bother! It doesn't seem to pay anymore.

Planned obsolescence has turned us into a nation of wastrels.

Repairing things was a much better deal in the old days when goods were made to be fixed. Now, the reverse is often true. Products are designed to be difficult to disassemble and the price of replacement parts is kept high to deter repair.

Meanwhile, new models with new features are continually introduced to tempt us—often at absurdly low prices made possible by globalization.

Yet, fixing things can still make financial sense if you take the right approach and is a great way to save waste—of water, energy and other essential resources. Here's how to go about it.

Shop differently. Look for things that don't just fit the bill, but are built to last and be repaired.
  • Consult online customer reviews of products to check for potential problems down the road.

  • When shopping for things that might come with a warranty, see that they do, and make sure the warranty is for a good length of time, not just a year. Register the warranty if suggested and keep it in a safe place, along with the sales receipt to establish your date of purchase.

  • Avoid products with warnings that opening the back or replacing a part will void the warranty.

  • Confirm that any necessary replacement parts or refills (such as specialized batteries, bulbs or toner) can be had at a reasonable price.

  • Steer clear of products made of flimsy materials.

  • Be willing to spend more for durability and quality to save money in the long run.

Treat your purchases well. Follow directions for protecting and maintaining your things and learn how to use them properly. Clean wood furniture and weatherproof boots as advised, change the oil in your car, empty the dryer's lint trap, check air conditioner filters, etc.

Try fixing things yourself. Get over the idea that you couldn't possibly do it. Many repairs are simple, provided you have clear instructions.
Make judicious use of professional repair services. Sometimes the cost is not worth it, but oftentimes it is. Find out.
  • First, check the warranty, if any, to see if you can get the repair done for free.

  • If not, locate a reputable repair person. Get recommendations from friends and colleagues. Try the local cobbler for shoes and tailor for clothes. Tailors can often be found at dry/wet cleaning establishments. For brand-name appliances and computers, check with the manufacturer or contact Sears or Best Buy, both of which offer repair services.

  • Give a detailed description of the problem to the repair person to get an accurate cost estimate. Also ask how long the item can be expected to last after being fixed. Then research the cost and life span of a new model and compare the information to help with your decision.

  • Consider if buying a replacement offers significant advantages, such as added functionality or greater energy efficiency, in which case repair might not be the best answer.

  • If you're thinking of buying a replacement, make sure that current models work equally well and come with the old features you love.

And remember, when you do finally say goodbye to a possession that you feel is no longer worth fixing, recycle it if you can.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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On This Topic


CHANGE IN THE AIR. Grassroots repair groups where people gather to give and get help with repair jobs have been cropping up abroad and at home.


Woman fixing stereo at Repair Cafe
Men fixing lamp together at Repair Cafe
REPAIR CAFÉ IN THE NETHERLANDS (above) provides free meeting places, tools and materials for people to repair things over a cup of coffee or tea. Some come seeking guidance, others to share what they know. Specialists in different types of repair are on hand to help.

Started by Martine Postma, who was inspired by the 2009 Platform21 = Repairing design exhibit in Amsterdam, Repair Café has received $525,000 in funding to propagate its ideas on sustainability and community and teach people to value things again. In the two and a half years since its founding, 30 groups have sprung up around the country to run Repair Cafés. Learn more about it in this New York Times profile.

Images above courtesy of Repair Café.



IN THE UNITED STATES, we have the Fixers' Collective in Brooklyn (above), which, interestingly, was also inspired by an exhibit called Mend at Proteus Gowanus.

There is another fixers collecive in Seattle and San Francisco has a periodic fix-it fair as well as a Fixit Clinic.



Resources


Investopedia
The Disposable Society: An Expensive Place To Live

The Daily Green
Planned Obsolescence: 8 Products Designed to Fail

Good Reads
The Waste Makers by Vance Packard

Grist
Ask Umbra on How to Repair a Broken Electric Toothbrush and Other Gadgets

The Story of Stuff Project
The Story of Electronics

Repair Clinic
Shop for Parts & Get Repair Help

Fix-It Club
How to Repair Anything

iFixit
Do-it-yourself Repair Manuals

Electronics TakeBack Coalition
Guide To Recycling Your Electronics

Also see resources embedded in the text.


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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.