When Consumer Society Went Wrong

Today, I fixed my old Emerson Electric desk fan. This monster was built back in the nineteen-forties or the nineteen thirties and it really shows–solid steel everywhere and everything is designed to be taken apart and reassembled. It could probably survive a nuclear weapon detonation at 1000 meters and still work! It weighs a ton and you could probably power the drive-train of a minivan with the torque the electric motor puts out. How come they don’t build consumer goods that way anymore?

As I was repairing the fan, I thought about the disposability of consumer goods. When did this begin? My generation simply throws things away when they break; it’s almost automatic. A button comes off a shirt and you give it to charity. Your shoes wear out and you toss them in the trash. If your chair breaks, you can’t burn it so, into the bin it goes.

When did this start? It seems like there was once a time when they designed things to be repaired. Why did they start building tools so that you couldn’t easily separate materials? They could have kept a lot of things out of landfills if they did.

If a part breaks on my fan, only that part has to be replaced and that part is usually made of one type of material so it’s easily recycled. When I look at modern fans (Or most modern gadgets for that matter.) it’s all plastic molded directly to the metal and everything is held together with glue or easily broken clips and tabs. If something breaks, that’s it: Throw it away. People don’t have the time to fix things anymore but even still, it seems like modern consumer design actively discourages any attempts at repair. I guess it’s just cheaper to manufacture things that way. It’s kind of sad.

I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to learn how to fix their own possessions, there are paid technicians for that. It’s just that somethings are difficult to impossible for even them to repair, given this merged, composite, build-once-repair-never design of things.

And now we are paying for it. Many plastics can’t be classified for recycling because their composition isn’t standardized. Many landfill items are a monolithic–part glass, part metal, part wood and part plastic with no easy way to separate components into different materials. Of course recycling technology keeps getting better–eventually nanotech will allow us to recycle anything made of ordinary matter–but until then it looks like we are wasting a lot of money that could be avoided.

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