Stop the Delicate Cycle
On broken appliances and a broken system.
On Tuesday night, my clothes dryer wouldn’t start. On Friday, the repairman came to fix it. I was at my computer on the back porch, and after a few minutes he came out to talk to me.
“It’s your circuit board,” he said. I asked, “Do I need to replace it?” “Yes,” he told me, and it’s gonna cost you $500.”
We went inside to look at the machine. “It’s just this part that has broken off,” he said. I looked. The part was a small plastic knob that had once been attached to the rest of the machine by a tiny piece of plastic. When the tiny plastic piece broke, the knob could no longer reach the circuit board, making it impossible to start the machine.
A $500 repair to replace a tiny plastic knob — a knob that was originally attached to the whole machine via an iota of brittle plastic.
I asked the repairman what else we could do. He offered to cut a hole in the front of the dryer, which I could use to reach in with a chopstick or my finger and activate the start “button” on the circuit board.
As he worked, he said, “You might just go ahead and replace the dryer at this point — it’s gotta be ten years old.”
Ten years old.
I also “had to” replace the refrigerator recently, because a $500 part had gone bad and a new refrigerator cost just a little more than the repair would have … and the repairman told me he wouldn’t trust the rest of the 15-year-old fridge to hold up much longer anyway.
A great deal has been said lately about Right to Repair, the revolutionary yet utterly common-sense idea that consumers should have the ability to fix the electronics they buy, enabling us to use phones, computers and other devices for more than a few years. Eric Lundgren, a recycling entrepreneur, is about to go to jail at the behest of Microsoft for the crime of providing free software that helps people keep their own PCs operational. Lundgren is a hero, and I do insist on my Right to Repair.
But what do I have the right to expect of the things I buy in the first place?
Should major purchases have to be replaced once a decade? Or should it be a badge of honor that my dryer has lasted for 10 years, a milestone in a long and useful life?
My “older” appliance gets a dubious shrug from the experts, who expect that soon it will die altogether. But my mother still uses the washer and dryer she bought 36 years ago. Those machines have no lit panels or soft buttons — just stiff mechanical ones, and dials that turn with a cranking sound. No circuit boards.
To be sure, the lack of sophisticated electronics means my mother’s washer doesn’t measure the size of the load and use the smallest amount of water that can clean that load. Her dryer no doubt lacks the sensors it would need to stop when the clothes are dry and thus minimize energy use. Today’s appliances are often a lot more efficient than older models when it comes to water and energy consumption.
In other words, I can imagine good reasons to upgrade my dryer. But the demise of a tiny plastic part that was clearly not built to last is not a good reason.
Whose idea was it to make my energy-efficient dryer dependent on a microscopic bit of plastic? Was there perhaps a way to build a Start button that would not be doomed to failure by 10 years of gentle pressing? I know there was. And yet as a consumer I’m trapped in a cycle of planned obsolescence and waste that makes my mother and those of her generation very very anxious, and should do the same to us.
We have to build a society that is not reliant on an endless cycle of manufacturing, selling and buying stuff. Once we do that, we can end waste, get off fossil fuels, stop measuring happiness in terms of possessions, and make it possible for our grandchildren to thank God we got our act together, rather than damning us.
Instead of taking the repairman’s first suggestion to replace the machine, I’ll take my time and figure out how much more efficiency I would get with a new dryer. And if my current dryer looks reasonably good in comparison to the newer machines on the market, I’ll happily use a chopstick to start the dryer for years to come.
Meanwhile, I’m renewing my commitment to the clothesline.
Managing Director, Frontier Group; Senior Vice President, The Public Interest Network
Susan Rakov is the Director of Frontier Group, The Public Interest Network's research and policy development center. Frontier Group’s work informs public debate about degradations to the environment and public health, threats to consumer rights and democracy, and the available routes to a better future. Susan lives with her family in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she is an advocate for public education and an amateur singer/songwriter.