Our throw-away culture is doing us no favours and needs fixing…

IN the last six weeks or so, the washing machine I inherited from the previous owner of my house died (after making horrendous loud noises due to a face mask being stuck in the rubber bit encircling the inside of the door), the fridge was finally put out of its misery last week (after lingering and fooling me until I noticed that a carton of milk had curdled), and my printer said it had a paper jam. This was undetectable.

My techie guy (who regularly saves me while I flounder due to my luddite tendencies) presented me with a new printer at a good price.

The old printer sits in my home office, waiting to be taken away by someone with a car, to be, I hope, recycled.

But whatever happened to fixing stuff? Why are we constantly buying new smart phones after using them for only a couple of years? Why are appliance companies reluctant to repair fridges and washing machine if they’re over a certain age? Ten years? You’d be lucky not to have your appliance rendered obsolete after five years.

Our throwaway culture is truly having devastating effects. The United Nations said that by the end of last year, each person on the planet will have produced an average 7.6kg of e-waste, meaning that a massive 57.4 million tonnes will have been generated worldwide.

Sending our old or broken appliances to the dump can release harmful substances and precious materials into the environment. Only 17.4% of this electronic waste is recorded as being properly collected, treated and recycled.

It’s a crying shame, despite the fact that most Irish people think it’s important to recycle our old appliances and electronics, according to a survey by Currys PC World.

Perhaps we should adopt so-called ‘repair cafes’, pioneered by journalist Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2009. Repair cafes are free monthly initiatives that allow people to fix household objects and electronics with the help and advice of volunteers, keen to share their knowledge.

For me, cafes are for coffee. I couldn’t think of anything more tedious than learning about the workings of say, a phone, in a place that’s usually associated with leisure time.

But who knows? Had I access to a repair cafe, I might actually find it an interesting challenge to inject new life into an electronic contraption. Or, knowing me, I’d get the volunteer to do the niggly intricate work. (I tend to operate on the basis that there is always ‘a man’ out there able for repair work. Sexist, I know. But it is men that tend to do such work.)

Still, the repair cafe is a really good idea. A way of truly ‘owning’ our devices so that they will last beyond the short time currently expended by phones and appliances.

It has been estimated that only 12% to 15% of mobile phones are properly recycled, despite approximately 90% of the population owning one. Despite our stated approval of recycling, do we actually care? Are we tracking the journey of our devices deemed no longer fit for our purposes?

E-waste is expected to double by 2050 making it the fastest type of domestic waste in the world. Often shipped illegally from the West to toxic dumps in places like Nigeria, China and the Philippines, the environmental impact includes massive carbon emissions as well as pollution of water sources and food supply chains.

But significant amounts of such waste could be avoided through repairs. Almost two thirds of Europeans would prefer to repair their products than buy new ones.

The French government hopes to increase the repair rate of electronics to 60% within five years. This is because an index of ‘repairability’ ratings for appliances has been introduced. There are significant fines on producers, distributors and sellers who don’t comply.

Here, in the battle for sustainability, there has been the recent passing into law of the Circular Economy Act. Important elements of the new law include phasing out single-use packaging, the introduction of mandatory segregation for commercial waste, the prohibition of exploration for and extraction of coal, lignite and oil shale.

The Circular Economy Fund will take the money made from environmental levies and recirculate to environmental and anti-waste initiatives. In a circular economy, waste and resource use are minimised. The use and value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible. When a product has reached the end of its life, its parts are used again and again – to create further useful products instead of being dismissively discarded.

Remember the days when you brought your shoes to the shoe-maker or cobbler? Such visits were the norm for those of us of a certain age. Does anyone get their shoes repaired these days? Clearly, the system is broken and demands to be fixed.


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