There’s a current mania - sadly prevalent within government as well as elsewhere - to insist that we should be repairing things instead of just recycling the components when they break down. For example, white goods like fridges, dishwashers and the like.
We can think of two models here. One is that we’ve that steel box with bits in it and we build it so that each component can be replaced, repaired, so that the box staggers on as a whole for decades. Or, we could build so that the box as an integrated whole of bits. When one or more break we then reuse - recycle perhaps - by passing the steel box through a furnace and build a new one out of the melted metal. These are not entirely or of course, there’s a spectrum here. We’d probably not want to melt the entire box because of a grommet on the feet meaning it sits wonky on the floor. We’d probably not want to repair if a falling i-beam had flattened it all. We’re thus talking about which tendency we’d prefer, a little bit more to the repair end, a little more to the junk and recycle.
The current contention is that we must move to the more repair end of our spectrum. But why?
But if you’ve ever had a sense that things are falling apart faster than they used to, invariably just after the warranty runs out, then you may have a point. A 2015 study showed that between 2004 and 2012, the proportion of household appliances that died within five years of purchase had doubled. This speeded-up cycle of stuff breaking down, being chucked away and having to be replaced isn’t just expensive,…
But is it expensive? Not obviously so, no:
In 1981, the 24-inch built-in dishwasher pictured above from a 1981 Wards Christmas catalog sold for $359.88. The average hourly manufacturing wage then was $7.42, meaning that it would have taken 48.5 hours of work at the average hourly wage for a typical factory worker to earn enough income 32 years ago to purchase the dishwasher above.
The new Kenmore 24-inch built-in dishwasher pictured above is currently listed on the Sears website for sale at $539.99. At the current average hourly wage of $20.26 for production workers, the average factory worker today would only have to work 26.7 hours to earn enough pre-tax income to buy today’s energy-efficient dishwasher, which is only a little more than one-half of the 48.5 hour time-cost for the 1981 model.
White goods are becoming cheaper by the only measure that actually matters, the labour we must perform to be able to gain access to them. And they’re becoming cheaper in that other measure of real prices, post-inflation adjustment - US CPI rose 176% between 1981 and 2018. It’s not just that our incomes are rising relative to prices, it’s that real prices are falling too.
Falling prices do indeed indicate that we’re using fewer resources to make these things over time. It’s also a flat rejection of the idea that this is all becoming more expensive in at least this one sense.
But there’s another thing we should look at too. What is the cost of the labour to repair something? Our average cost of labour has risen from that $7-ish an hour to $20-ish without the inflation adjustment - nominal prices have moved more than inflation note, meaning that labour has really become more expensive. This changes the repair to recycle costs, no? 10 hours of labour to repair has gone from $70 on a $360 machine to $200 on a $540 one. At some point in this process we will be using fewer resources to melt and do over our steel box rather than attempt to repair it.
Now run the same process over the repair or recycle decision for a computer. A 1981 model against a 2018 one. The decision is more obvious there.
At which point we need a decision making process. How are we to calculate through these numbers to decide upon which? Obviously enough the price system, it’s the only one we’ve got which can do it for us. But when we do look at this we find that we’re already doing so. People do resole £500 pairs of handmade shoes and don’t £10 trainers. People do repair £2,000 ovens and don’t £30 microwaves. On the grounds that some things are not cheaper to repair, others are.
Oh, and we’ve also proven that the statement that not repairing is more expensive isn’t true - for a reasonable subset of all goods that is. Thus an insistence that we must repair more in order to save isn’t true, is it?