Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Disposable Home Appliances, Safety and Pollution

It is a disturbing fact that many household appliances have now become disposables. In the past, when an appliance breaks down, it gets repaired. What's troubling now is that repair costs are so expensive that users find it more affordable to purchase a brand new appliance than to have the broken one fixed; thus more refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers, stove tops, coffee makers, and washing machines end up in the trash.

The amount of e-waste is so high that it has become an industry of itself. Numerous resources are being spent to handle the recycling of such waste. However, much of that "recycling" involves the demanufacturing of the product. Without strict regulations and safety procedures for protection, such labor is damaging to both the worker and the environment. Worse yet, recycling companies are finding that the cheapest way to demanufacture broken appliances is to ship them to third world countries where protective safeguards are not existent.

Demanufacturing

The evidence of pollution from disassembling appliances is overwhelming, but here's the stat. According the textbook Principles of Environmental Science, taught in California's colleges and universities, groundwater and surface water contamination in China's demanufacturing areas alone are found to be as much as 200 times dirtier than what the World Health Organization considers safe.

It gets worse. A significant portion of the very cargo ships that are used to haul our consumables from developing countries which may include the very vessels that export our natural resources and electronics waste to China are dangerously demanufactured by boys and teenagers in Bangladesh. The groundwater has to be polluted beyond belief, but worse yet, such workers are regularly injured and killed under the dangerous conditions.



The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights is credited for exposing that colossal scheme back in 2009. When presented with such shocking evidence like that, repairing and reusing such ships, the broken television set, desktop printer, or rice cooker might not be such a bad environmental and economic idea after all. We are now living in a disposable culture and the environmental and safety costs are grave even with the recycling programs. If every living person in the world lived like us, the entire globe would be flooded in such contamination. Have Congress, President Obama and the union-pandering U.S. Department of Labor cracked down on this maltreatment of workers?

Repair and Reuse

So what exactly makes repair costs so expensive? In many cases, the spare parts are proprietary or outsourced. Therefore, many parts are simply not available at your local Home Depot. What's worse is that many cases of broken appliances center around faulty electronic control panels, whereas the rest of the hardware works perfectly. Replacing such proprietary parts such as the computer microchip would be too expensive and therefore near impossible for the user. So, throwing out the whole unit and replacing it with a another one is the only option left. The cycle normally would repeat itself well before the next decade.

Today, there is certainly a market demand for a return to appliances and electronics that are not only user repairable, but also last for decades at a time. Many people are fed up with the disposable culture. The fact is that if appliances are built to last, less would end up in the trash and fewer units would have to be demanufactured. The question is what exactly is preventing start up companies from introducing such premium products into the marketplace? It's true that many companies capitalize on the sales of brand new complete units, but why not profit from the spare parts or on the repair guy? It's certainly doable. Look at commercial-quality machines. Look at the Odyssey Electronic Validating Farebox found on a transit bus near you. How about electronic traffic control systems like the stop light? Profits can still be made with premium quality appliances.
"Energy Star Plus" Concept:
A powerful sell item toward
appliance buyers looking for
long lasting products that can
be easily repaired.

Tax Incentive: "Energy Star Plus"

Many appliances today carry the Energy Star logo. The famous symbol is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency voluntary program that provides an incentive to manufacture and sell clean and energy efficient electronics. The star has been a powerful sell item toward buyers. If one sees the seal on an appliance, he/she knows the machine won't drive up the utility bill. However, because most machines cannot be repaired by the user let alone a professional repairman, the Energy Star symbol becomes absolutely meaningless whenever a breakdown occurs and the appliance has to be thrown out.

Perhaps Congress should authorize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement a second incentive program called the "Energy Star Plus" with the tagline "Long lasting with user repairable parts." This powerful seal combined with a tax rebate would incline manufacturers to get back into the business of manufacturing durable appliances that can be easily repaired.

The incentive includes the requirements needed for an Energy Star seal, but would also entice manufacturers to design and develop long lasting appliances with common user repairable parts and open source circuit board firmware which can be easily replaced should they fail or break. This would include spare user repairable microchips, electronic components, display screens, and buttons for easy repair of defective appliance circuit boards. Such common spare parts would be sold all throughout the marketplace with plenty of competition to keep quality high and prices low. The man of the house would once again be able to fix broken down machinery. Servicing jobs would be created as both supply and demand for affordable appliance repair would significantly rise. E-waste pollution would be significantly reduced. Deaths and injuries in developing nations caused by unprotected demanufacturing would drop. What's the hold up?

1 comment:

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