Why it's so hard to fix stuff that needs repairing
It’s frustrating how little most appliance companies will do to help you repair something simple. Recently the spray arms of my Whirlpool dishwasher got clogged with food debris so — no surprise — my dishes weren’t getting clean. I called Whirlpool to ask how I could take the arms apart to clean them. Pretty basic stuff.
“We can’t give repair information out,” the Whirlpool rep told me. She suggested I go look at YouTube videos online and “maybe that will help.” Of course, I’d already done that, and after more Googling and repair forums I figured out the spray arms don’t come apart. Whirlpool failed me twice: Not only did they fail to give me basic information for a fix, they designed a product that has unrepairable parts.
In the U.S., 19 states have introduced “right to repair” laws — though these mostly apply to electronics and were written in response to not being able to simply and inexpensively replace iPhone batteries. Many of these bills have languished in state governments, including a recent, well-supported one in California.
“People shouldn’t be forced to ‘upgrade’ to the newest model every time a replaceable part on their smartphone or home appliance breaks,” Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, told Venture Beat. “These companies are profiting at the expense of our environment and our pocketbooks as we become a throwaway society that discards over 6 million tons of electronics every year.”
For their part, manufacturers of products — from electronic device companies to appliances that need special codes that only the parent companies have access to — have stated that enabling repair to their products would be a security breach or copyright infringement. The idea is that by making repair easier, their products’ trade secrets will be compromised.
But consumer advocates think it’s more about profit than safety: “No one puts trade secrets in their repair manuals, and repairs can’t infringe patents because repairing isn’t manufacturing,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, told the L.A. Times.
Laws around repairability typically take several years to get enough support to move forward. Though the U.S. saw 19 states introduce some variation on the bills, the battle is far from over — in fact, it has just begun.
Similar efforts overseas
The European Union has plans for a new law under the Ecodesign and Circular directive that would set “requirements on durability, repairability and recyclability of products.”
In England, regardless of what happens with Brexit, the U.K. plans to abide by European rules for products. “We want manufacturers and producers to make products easier to reuse and repair, to make them last longer. We will consider mandatory extended warranties and clearer product labelling if necessary to achieve this,” Therese Coffey, the U.K.’s Environment Minister, told The Independent newspaper.
And in Sweden, a 2016 parliamentary proposal aimed to reward Swedes for choosing to repair items such as bicycles or small appliances instead of throwing them away. This would be achieved with tax breaks that make it worthwhile to fix, rather than toss, certain consumer goods.
What to do in the meantime
While we’re waiting for companies to be forced to remove obstacles to repair, you can try your hand at self-repair via YouTube, which hosts a plethora of videos for different types of appliances — often created by parts sellers, but sometimes also made by helpful people who want to empower others. You can also go to iFixit, which includes tutorials, forums for asking and answering questions about electronic repair and access to manuals. The video above is iFixit’s Best and Worst Devices of 2018, an annual service that rates the repairability of many gadgets.
And don’t forget to complain: I called Whirlpool and registered my dissatisfaction with their policy, and I also Tweeted at them.
After all, it’s not only money I’m looking to save when I fix something myself — I’m also doing my best to keep useful things from ending up in the landfill. As Coffey said, “It is absolutely right that we move away from being a throwaway society so we can achieve our aim of leaving our environment in a better state for future generations.”
Why it’s so hard to fix stuff that needs repairing
Some companies make DIY repair difficult (or impossible), but new laws in the U.S. and Europe may make fixing things easier.