How to save time and money by going disposable

Portrayal of a future society that has fully embraced “disposability” in the movie “Idiocracy”

I’ve been asked, “When something breaks, why do we buy a new one instead of repairing it?” It’s a universal problem. People who tend to care about the poor and the environment, mention Walmart as the biggest perpetrator of this culture. People who tend to care about American manufacturing and imports, mention Harbor Freight as the biggest perpetrator of this culture. “How do all of these stores get away with selling us cheap crap that breaks after one use?” they say.

It all comes down to a “Repair Mentality”.

These “Repair Junkies”, as I like to call them, believe that it’s almost always better to repair than to replace.

It’s hard to see where their thinking is wrong. It’s intuitive and seductive thinking. In order to clear things up, I’m going to lay out the many reasons why the “disposable” way of life is actually more advantageous.

Direct cost
The bottom line is economics. There’s no escaping it. Labor is expensive and manufacturing is cheap. One of the reasons for that, is that we’ve become increasingly specialized. Some people are good at one thing. Some people are good at other things. It would be inefficient if everyone tried to do everything.  It wouldn’t make sense for me to spend thousands of hours becoming a competent engineer, and then spending hundreds of hours trying to brew my own coffee. For the same reason, it wouldn’t make sense to spend thousands of hours becoming a competent coffee shop, and then spend hundreds of hours trying to engineer a new coffee press. We can work together and save each other hundreds of hours.

Engineering cost
There’s a phrase in engineering, “You can have it fast. You can have it cheap. You can have it strong. Pick two.” Engineers work with managers to pick which attributes to keep based on what is important to the customer. More generally, there are various attributes to optimize for: ease of assembly, ease of manufacturing, low weight, compact size, etc. All of these can be called “Design for X”.

Having worked at Chrysler, I can assure you that “Design for Repair” is on everyone’s mind. One of the biggest complaints from customers, is that if their car breaks down, they can’t access the broken component without removing 10 bolts and multiple layers of brackets. Sometimes a bolt is in an area where a wrench won’t fit. Engineers would love to move a bolt to where it’s more accessible. Unfortunately, cars are so cramped underneath, that any relocations of one component, requires relocating at least five other components. All of these changes require engineers to think and test and implement. Engineers are not cheap by the way.

No kid wants to receive hand-me-down clothes for Christmas day. Every kid wants clothes that are just for them. We want to be special. As adults with disposable incomes, the joy of unboxing our first electric drill from Harbor Freight is 10 times the thrill of getting a used cast iron, 20 lbs electric drill (with a few quirks, but, hey, it works fine).

One size doesn’t fit all. Our tastes change over time. Disposable electric drills allow for such a need.

Electronics go obsolete all the time, and are going obsolete faster and faster.

It wouldn’t make sense to keep repairing the same N64 now that the Wii U is released.

If anything is inspiring in economics, it’s accessibility. As things become cheaper and lower quality (not built for repair), more people have access to them. Not everyone can afford a Macbook. Even though the Macbook is a powerful tool, many people can’t afford to use the it. The world would be ok, I guess, if Macs were the only source of content. But the world is undeniably better since there is a cheaper alternative: the PC. Turning your nose up at “walmart quality” goods is snobbery if I’ve ever seen it.

Enjoyment of Repair
There’s a big caveat here. If you enjoy repairing your stuff, then by all means, don’t let me talk you out of it. I know how great the feeling of accomplishment is when you’re able to do something that’s completely outside of your field of study. Not to mention, if you have sentimental attachment to your stuff and you don’t want to throw it away, then you should totally repair it.

The bottom line is that it almost always makes more sense to replace your stuff instead of repairing it.