Reuse and Repair

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Half a century ago, we were a thriving culture of reuse and repair. What happened?

What happened? Simple. Industry decided that it was too expensive for it to develop new products that people really wanted and needed and rather made products that broke rather quickly and were made in such a way that they can no longer be repaired and thus people have to buy the same (kind of) product again and again.

It, more or less, began at the time of Osram taking on the manufacture of light bulbs, or so it is said, when they started to make them with a built-in obsolescence of lasting but x-number of turn on and off cycles, as the way the bulbs were then they would last almost forever.

But it really went from bad to worse, at least as far as Western Europe is concerned, from around the beginning of the 1980, may be even a little earlier, when first the deposit schemes for bottles, including beer, was abandoned and bottles became buy and throw, and then products were being made in such a way that they could no longer be opened to be repaired, thus making it impossible to extend their life.

Then came the outsourcing of manufacture to countries such as China and products became so cheap to buy and repair, if at all possible, to expensive that buying new is often many times cheaper than repair. And everyone is surprised, strangely enough, that we have a waste problem.

Yes, it is true that most of our countries, with the exception, but then it was not a Western nation during that time, the German Democratic Republic, often, falsely, referred to as East Germany, did not have a recycling culture but then that is also not entirely true for the rag and bone man was the collector of items for recycling, often doing some of that work himself.

In the German Democratic Republic what we can recyclables today were referred to as secondary raw materials and they were sorely needed as the country itself was very short of raw materials of any sort bar some iron ore. Every tin can was made back into steel, every bottles and even glass jar was reused and not broken up and downcycled, as is all too often the case nowadays – or does anyone really believe that when all glass is tossed together (broken) into the recycler they are able to make bottles and other glass products out of that mass of glass shards again – and industry in the country heavily relied on such secondary raw materials. Waste paper, newspapers and other paper, also was seen as such secondary raw material and most newspapers, books, school books, exercise books, etc. were made from truly recycled paper. The quality of this paper was not always the best but the German Democratic Republic did this well before any one in the West even thought it necessary.

Reuse and repair also was – out of necessity – the order of the day in the GDR and most products were made in such a way that they lasted and that they could be repaired, by the user often even in more or less simple DIY, and it was also the same case still in the West until about the 1980s or so.
Thereafter products in the West were either made in such a way that often even a repairman could not open an item that needed repair due to so-called proprietary screws to which only the manufacturer had the drivers. Thus access to the internal workings of a device was no longer given and repair not possible, much like today with many products, such as the i-Phone where things are glues rather than screwed and any attempt to access the interior for repair may result in compete destruction of case and device.

In other cases it has just simply become too expensive to even consider repair. When the repair for a brand-name (I won't mention the name though) computer printer, which itself has cost £30, is being quoted as, including parts and labor, more than 4x the purchase price, then repair is definitely not something anyone with sense would consider. Hence, waste. How can, however, a manufacturer justify the cost of a small spare part to be £75 in a printer that has cost less than half that amount, in all honesty, beats me. The labor costs was quoted at the same rate, and in addition shipping to and from manufacturer. It would have had to be sent in as no access to the area in the printer where the broken part resided.

A switch on a coffee machine cannot be repaired, as also encountered by this author, simply because the manufacturer has used screws that cannot be removed, thus rendering the machine obsolete and thus waste. Has everyone gone absolutely stupid; us, as consumers as well for accepting this?

The same goes for shoes and boots. Even if one can find good ones, where, for instance, there is actually a midsole that has been sewn to the upper, for instance, as in a pair of boots that I had. The seem had split a little and needed sewing but, alas, I did not have the correct needles and was unable to find them in the UK. So I took it to a shoe repair shop and first of all it took me several time of explaining what I wanted doing and all the operator understood was that I wanted new soles put on. When the finally grasped it the reply was: “I do not have a machine to do that”. It didn't need a machine but two bent needles and waxed thread; that was all. But those repair shops, today, are but machine operators and if there is not a machine for it it can't be done.

Forty years ago there would have been the men and even women who could have, in their little shops, been able to do such a repair within minutes with needles and thread, as the above one, and the same was true for radios, TVs, and other electrical appliances. To repair a car you did not need a degree in computer science and the right kinds test computers and such, but just some wrenches, screwdrivers, or what have you, and many people did a lot of tinkering on their cars themselves. Spare parts often came from the scrapyard because you just unbolted something from a scrap car and bolted it onto yours. Today that cannot be done. When the “glass” (plastic nowadays) of one of your indicators, for instance, is broken you have to replace, nowadays, the entire thing. No more going to just buying the “glass” or salvaging it from a scrap yard. Nope. An expensive new entire light has to be bought and fitted.

How did we ever become that stupid? Well, it was not so much us, the consumers, but the manufacturers. But then again, we have to share some of the blame for allowing it to happen.

© 2019