How we live: Consumers should have the right to repair


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Feb 05, 202248 minutes ago4 minutes read Join the conversation Actor Gordon Jump portrayed Ol’ Lonely, the Maytag repairman during a long ago Maytag promotional event. Postmedia files Photo by Peter Redman /National Post

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Remember the TV ads starring the lonely, underemployed Maytag repairman? Turns out his pitch for the sturdy, dependable washers and dryers was true.

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Nearly 35 years ago, our Maytag washer and dryer arrived on the heels of our firstborn to tackle the mountain of laundry generated by one tiny human. Ever since, Mr. Fix It, aka my husband, has been lovingly maintaining them. He’s replaced the drive belt on the washer — its sole repaired in three and a half decades. The dryer has demanded more of his attention, needing two new drive belts, bearings, a heating element and a felt drum seal.

While these boxy white beasts aren’t slick, they still work like a hot damn. We’re loathe to replace them because the chances of Mr. Fix It being able to repair a shiny new set are slim. Most washers and dryers now have computer chips, making home maintenance almost impossible.

Buy a set today and expect them to last a mere eight to 10 years, thanks to chip malfunction and/or crap construction. Large appliances don’t typically wind up in Alberta landfills anymore. Most are now recycled, as are electronics, small appliances, toys and most anything with a cord, thanks to a new program through the Alberta Recycling Management Authority.

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Still, that short lifespan is incredibly wasteful. Pollutants and greenhouse gases are generated in the making of new machines, contributing to environmental degradation and climate change. And it’s an ever-worsening problem as everyday items such as toasters and fridges “get smart.”

Sometimes, people can’t fix their stuff because the manufacturers of everything from appliances to smartphones to tractors forbid it. Under the guise of copyright laws, manufacturers force consumers to pay them for exorbitant repairs.

At the same time, it’s getting harder to find replacement parts to mend stuff ourselves or locate reasonably priced technicians to fix what we can’t. Who hasn’t faced the prospect of $200 minimum for a service call plus unknown costs for parts and labor and decided to just chuck it?

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So, we toss out items no longer under warranty and fork over hard-earned dollars to buy cheaply made new stuff that costs the earth and keeps us tied to an endless consumer cycle. Along the way, we’re quickly losing the skills to fix things as fewer of us work with our hands. (Tapping on a smartphone doesn’t count.)

Repairs are still common in many parts of the world. I think of visiting the weekly market in a small, gritty town on Mexico’s west coast in pre-pandemic times. Past the stalls selling fruit, handicrafts and clothes was an impressive used hardware section. There, owners of, say, busted blenders could buy both new and recycled parts, from blades to bushings, to get that small appliance back making licuados again. Genius!

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Here, the economic calculation is the exact opposite: cheap stuff plus expensive labor equals a disposable culture. Take the flimsy mid-priced Singer sewing machine I bought a decade ago for its myriad stitching options. I had it repaired several times but it never worked properly. Compare that to the hefty singer in a wooden case that I inherited from my mother-in-law. It cost a small fortune when she bought it in the late 1950s, but guess which machine wound up in the dumpster and which one stitches on?

Consumers should be able to repair their own appliances but new technology and copyright laws often make that impossible. Consumers should be able to repair their own appliances but new technology and copyright laws often make that impossible. Kurhan – Fotolia

I’m not alone in my appreciation of stuff built to last. Vintage amplifiers are now in demand. Some would rather collect long-play vinyl than subscribe to a streaming service. Recently, we gave away an old Underwood typewriter to a little girl who dreams of being a writer; her dad’s eyes shine when he came to collect it.

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But who am I kidding? Old stuff is amazing, but that little girl will want the fastest computing power available when she grows up to be a novelist.

And therein lies the problem: technological change is staggeringly fast. We don’t want the glacially slow Apple desktop or the deceased BlackBerry. We want the latest and greatest. But wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to swap out those wafer-thin chips in your laptop for upgraded ones? To fix those fantastically expensive AirPods? Or to replace just the circuit board instead of the entire washing machine?

There are glitters of hope. A global right-to-repair movement is fighting to ensure that electronics manufacturers make available the tools, parts, software and manuals so that people and independent repair shops can fix them.

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It’s gaining traction with right-to-repair legislation underway in more than 20 US states. New rules being introduced in the EU will force appliance makers to supply replacement parts for washing machines, dishwashers and fridges; Unfortunately, it’s only for a 10-year lifespan, and repairs must be done by professionals, not consumers.

In Canada, there’s a private member’s bill under parliamentary review to amend the Copyright Act. If passed, it would allow consumers to sidestep the “technological protection measure” — essentially a digital lock — that’s found in computer programs, but only to maintain or repair equipment.

Before the pandemic hit, local organizations were pushing back against the tidal wave of waste by holding repair cafes, in which people bring in their broken electronics, small appliances, clothing and more, and are paired with a volunteer “fixer.” These cafes grew out of an initiative started in Amsterdam in 2009; hopefully, they will spring back to life.

Here at our own repair cafe, I really can’t claim any credit for keeping our old appliances going, other than contributing my strong aversion to waste. It’s all thanks to my beloved fixer, who is currently keeping a 15-year-old KitchenAid gas range on life support and babying a 25-year-old Starbucks espresso machine.

But there are limits. For years, he kept alive a squat two-slice toaster in Harvest Gold until I begged him: “Stop fixing that @$^% thing!” He did and our sleek new stainless number is much nicer. We’ll see how long it lasts.

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