Disposable Society 5/18/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

As I recall, I was in high school at the time, so figure late ‘70’s when our refrigerator finally “crapped out”. It was an old Frigidaire, older, in fact, than I was at the time. In fact, when we moved into our new house many years earlier, we took it with us. Mom was so happy; she just didn’t like that old beast. She still had to defrost it by hand and she said the door opened “the wrong way”. According to her, with the layout of the house and where the refrigerator was, you fought yourself every time you opened it.

By the way, many of you may not understand what it means to defrost a freezer by hand because, for many years, practically all refrigerator/freezers are self-defrosting. Back in the day, though, a thick layer of ice would form around the walls of the freezer where moisture would touch and solidify. If you let it go for too long, it would get so thick that you couldn’t fit your own food in it, and it was so tough to get off that if you tried to scrape it you ran the risk of accidentally cutting the Freon tube open. Think of scraping your windshield when the ice is particularly nasty. So periodically, you would have to turn off the refrigerator, remove the food and put it in the sink, and to avoid having it thaw during the defrost you would speed up the process by putting large pots of boiling water in the freezer, the warmth of which would melt the ice faster. Of course, you would need to have plenty of towels handy as you did it.

Anyway, when she woke up and found the food thawing, she was so happy because, surely, she could finally buy a new one. Dad, on the other hand, said nothing. Instead, he took the day off of work, and by the time mom got home, he had replaced the burned-out thermostat and it was once again fully operational.

Mom was, well, let’s just say she wasn’t happy.

Those were different days. My dad had his old television, again older than I was, until I was, again, in high school. That old black-and-white television was ancient, not only decades behind the color television revolution, but still running on vacuum tubes. Every year he would have to replace them, but back then things were not only made to last but were also owner serviceable.

There’s a term you don’t hear much anymore. These days, many items that you purchase have little stickers that basically guarantee that you cannot even open the casing without voiding the warrantee. The goal is to make it more expensive to have a trained technician work on it (since you’re not allowed to do so yourself) than it is to buy a new unit. Sadly, we’ve come to not only expect this, but to embrace the concept as well. It’s heartbreaking, leading to overflowing landfills and increasing debt for almost all of us.

I clearly inherited the “fix it” genes from my father. I like older equipment and love delving into it to repair it. When I first started teaching in South Dakota, I inherited a laboratory full of equipment (spectrometers, gas chromatograph, ovens and so forth) that just didn’t work. Before the end of the summer, I had all but one of these pieces of equipment back up and running well enough for the students to use them. In the meantime, I struggled to get the university to purchase the laser I needed to get the last piece of equipment (the FTIR spectrophotometer; a basic piece of lab equipment) because my colleagues in the biology department were seeking funding to replace two pieces of equipment because they were “old”. I have no doubt in my mind that I saved the university over a hundred thousand dollars in equipment and repairs by doing it myself, but they didn’t want to spend the extra thousand because they wanted new shiny equipment.

Not that I’m bitter, of course.

We see the disposable philosophy everywhere these days. Even our clothes have become increasingly made of plastic polymers and are expected to last for one season or less before it, too, ends up in a refill. But there is a movement, finally, to try to force manufacturers of equipment to make major appliances that are user serviceable. Oh, it’s not for everyone; it never was. I know a lot of people who would have never had the nerve to remove the screws necessary to replace the vacuum tubes of that old television, but sometimes nerve is all it takes. I wonder how long it will be until we swing back to the old ways and appliances that can be repaired and are built to last.

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