Monday, April 6, 2009

How (and why) to fix a toaster

A few months ago, a friend's coffee grinder broke. Coffee grinders, like toasters and other small appliances, are often cheapter to throw away and replace than to repair. But think about the waste.

If you just don't like your small appliance anymore, or are replacing it because you need a new function (like a timer or auto shutoff on a coffee maker), then there are plenty of places to take working appliances, clothes, furniture and all sorts of household goods for re-use. And, as we all know, it's better to re-use most items than to recycle them. The city I live in, Toronto, has a web page full of links for such wonderful places.

Sadly, a lot of working appliances and electronics do end up going to landfills. These range from ugly old toasters to last year's cell phones. In 2000/2001, Toronto studied the composition of its garbage. According to a six-week sampling of 80 single-family households, goods such as appliances, small appliances, electronics and furniture accounted for 12 percent of waste. That's 116 kg per household per year. In those six weeks, the 80 households dumped 67 kilograms of small appliances and electronics. That's equivalent to almost a toaster for every second household in just six weeks!

This is one area where, according to the study, apartment-dwellers fare better. The study also looked at 826 households in multi-unit dwellings. The average apartment only tossed the equivalent of 4 kg of small appliances or electronics per year.

But still, even if every Torontonian threw away only as much as the residents of a typical apartment, we'd be looking at about 4 million kilograms of small appliances and electronics in the garbage every year. That's about 2 million two-slice toasters.

So, what can we do? In some cases, we can fix 'em.

My friend pointed me to a nifty site, It has instructions on maintenance and repair of all sorts of things, particularly small appliances like toasters and coffee grinders.

Me, I like books, so I'm always on the lookout for a good book that'll guide me through a problem. Sadly, there are few books on the market today that instruct people on small appliance repair.

One that does cover some small appliances in a simple, straightforward way is How to Fix Everything for Dummies. It covers the basics and is easy to follow. It does not, contrary to its title, include instructions on how to fix everything. It does have instructions on fixing lots of things, from simple household repairs to small appliances. The small appliances section is brief, but does cover things like the upright vacuum, iron and food processor. It does not actually tell you how to repair these things, generally. Instead, it covers what I would call maintenance. That is, how to take apart and clean them, and some simple adjustments that'll give 'em a longer life. It also covers large appliances, heating and air conditioning systems, and lots of other household concerns. And at about $25 (Canadian), it's not a major investment.

Small appliances are a concern because they're bulky items to send to landfill. But the real danger is electronics. These contain many components that will leach dangerous heavy metals. Like small appliances, they're often less expensive to replace than to repair. Or at least so it seems.

If we factored in the cost of safely disposing of, or recycling, the components of most electronics, repairing them would be a much more cost-effective proposition. Right now, that cost is borne by the general public. My taxes pay for your waste. Not fair.

More often, though, nobody is paying for proper disposal. Cell phones, printers, old computers, they all too often are just tossed into a landfill. Future generations will end up paying through the nose for expensive cleanup projects as water and soil become contaminated. I'm a father. I don't want that legacy for my son.

What I would like to see is something called "Extended Producer Responsibility." That's a system in which manufacturers are responsible for their products, even after they've been sold to a consumer. When their life is done, the products go back to the manufacturers (or the manufacturers pay for proper recycling or disposal). Apply the idea to packaging, and you can bet we'll see a lot less of those hard-to-open, non-recyclable plastic packages on toys and video games. (If you're not sure what's recyclable and live in Toronto, see my post here.)

In the meantime, lots of electronic devices can be repaired. Some can be fixed by an average lay person. Most will require some legitimate training in electronics. I thought I'd hit paydirt when I found Troubleshooting and Repairing Consumer Electronics Without a Schematic. It's writtin in plain language! I understand most of it! Unfortunately, to actually make use of it would require a couple years of education that I'm sadly lacking. So, if anyone in my neighbourhood wants to field test my copy, you're welcome to it. Just promise that you'll repair at least one radio, VCR, television or DVD player and keep it out of a landfill.

1 comment:

KarenInTo said...

I have a number of broken appliances that are well worth fixing. I figure if they were made in the 1940/50/60s era and lasted ME a number of years, somebody should be able to get them to work again. A couple of chrome Sunbeam toasters, a Sunbeam kettle that just needs a new cord, a GE kettle of the famous hemispherical industrial design that suddenly lost the seal at the spout, and a really nice KitchenAid Hobart burr coffee grinder that suddenly seized after a few decades of faithful service (only about 5 years for me). Fortunately there are still a couple of shops in the greater Toronto area that might be able to help. They just don't make 'em like they used to.