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You probably know the feeling — you're running out the door, favorite bag over one shoulder, a coffee in one hand, a pair of keys in the other, and you’re trying to squeeze between the door and the wall while you keep your cat from escaping. Suddenly you’re yanked backwards and hear a horrible ripping sound. Your beautiful leather purse handle is now dangling from the doorknob and you look down at your favorite handbag to see a gaping hole of torn stitches where the handle used to be.
Unless you’re a leather worker or a professional seamstress, you probably don’t know how to handle repairs of this intensity. And you can’t exactly resell or donate something this dysfunctional. So your purse is now just… trash?
That’s how it typically goes these days. We live in an incredibly abundant time. If your wallet rips or your lawn mower breaks — if your vacuum loses suction or your watch screen cracks — 90% of the time it’s easier to replace the item than repair it.
But we are here to tell you we need to bring back the lost art of repairing. Because if you want to live a sustainable lifestyle, this is a powerful way to participate.
While most people are taught about the 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle), not many consider where repair would fit in there.
In the Hierarchy of Waste (we go in depth on this in this blog) — repair is more eco-friendly than recycle, but less sustainable than reduce and reuse. In essence, repairing allows you to use just a small amount of new raw materials while still continuing to reuse many of the original materials. This is a much smaller impact than a full blown replacement.
Let’s look at an example. Consider what it takes to make one cotton t-shirt. One resource used is water — 713 gallons in fact! For just one t-shirt! (Psst: that’s one of the reasons why we love bamboo! It takes very little water to grow, especially compared to cotton.)
If it takes 713 gallons of water to make and you wear it once a week for a year, it’s essentially costing 13.7 gallons of water per wear. But if you wear that same t-shirt once a week for one more year, that equals 6.8 gallons per wear. Now say the armpit rips — you can either throw it out, or sew it back together. If you sew it back together and wear it for another year, you’ve brought the water down to 4.5 gallons per wear. You can see how this saves resources over the long run. But clothes and accessories aren’t the only items we should be striving to repair.
E-waste includes everything that relies on an electrical component to function, so it’s not just your cell phones and TV’s, it’s also laundry machines, electronic scales, remote controls, your vehicle dashboard, kitchen appliances, etc.
It’s difficult to repair electronics because they are intricate, nuanced, and require technology that is well beyond most of us. But the culture of replacement rather than repair is also perpetuated by many companies supplying electronics. Rather than making it easy to get a new battery for a handheld vacuum, it’s cheaper and easier to buy a whole new vacuum. Customers are discouraged from repairing an electronic they already have because it’s cheaper and easier to replace.
It’s a tricky issue that has shaped a lot of the conversations around sustainability in recent years.
People have been talking about the Right to Repair pretty much ever since the growth of Silicon Valley. As the technology industry boomed, electronics became more and more difficult to repair. And tech companies didn’t really want consumers to open up and dig inside their inventions.
Companies began making different components needing slightly different tools and pieces to repair them. If you’ve ever upgraded your phone and it had a different charging port than your old phone, you can imagine the frustrations of a small independent repair shop trying to keep up with the various tools needed for thousands of different manufacturers.
In addition to the vast number of tools required, many companies introduced proprietary certifications that a repairman must complete in order to even purchase the tools required to perform a repair. These certifications are specific to a single brand, so again, an independent store owner would have to obtain thousands of certifications to service all the different electronics the customers in their neighborhood might bring in.
If you’ve ever tried to get a screen fixed on an iPhone or replace the battery in your mp3 player, you’ve probably experienced this frustration.
In response to these difficulties, people suggested there ought to be laws around the Right to Repair. They argue that companies shouldn’t be allowed to make it so difficult to perform simple repairs, and we as a people have the right to choose who makes those repairs, rather than being required to go back to the manufacturer.
In June 2021, a bill called the Fair Repair Act was introduced in the US House of Representatives, and in March of 2022, a similar bill was introduced in the Senate. The legislation would require manufacturers to make repair equipment available to third-party repair providers.2
It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and start cheering for the Right to Repair, but there is a flip side to this coin. The arguments against the Right to Repair have some valid points as well.
1. User safety
Remember the exploding Samsung Galaxy phones? Current technology sometimes contains combustible materials and toxic substances. If someone without the proper knowledge and experience attempts a repair beyond their skills, it can be truly dangerous. Keep this in mind before you go poking around in your own electronics!
2. Specialized tools are not readily available
And you can do more harm than good if you attempt a repair without them. Even though the Fair Repair Act might make it illegal to restrict those tools, it may still be difficult to get your hands on them. And think of all the electronics in your house… even a handyman has to carry multiple toolboxes to keep track of all the implements required for appliances that are mostly standardized.
3. Easily repaired products reduce repeat customers
4. Privacy and cybersecurity
If you’re ready to live more sustainably and embrace repairing what you already have, you may be wondering how. You don’t have to be embarrassed if you don’t know how to sew — there’s professionals everywhere for that kind of stuff! And more often than not, you’ll be supporting a small, locally owned business when you take your repairs to a professional.
Not even sure where to start?
If you are really dedicated to repair rather than replace, consider that as a factor before you make new purchases. For electronics like phones, tablets, and laptops you can check a site like iFixit where they rate the “fixability” of a product for basic repairs like battery and screen replacements.
And even if you aren’t prepared to invest in a repair, try offering your broken items for free on a platform like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace before you throw it away. Some handy people are likely to take your “trash” and repair or remake it into a treasure. Don’t forget you can also repurpose or upcycle your things with a little creativity!