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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Throwaway Society

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Josh Gerak (juh-RACK) sent us this account of his experiences in the consumer product marketplace. Mr. Gerak lives and writes in Seattle.


GERAK: We live in a throwaway society, and it really makes me sick.

CURWOOD: Commentator Josh Gerak sent us this account of his experiences in the consumer product marketplace.

GERAK: One day our telephone answering machine broke. The tape wouldn't wind. It was a fancy machine, so rather than sending it to a landfill I was determined to fix it. As I called repair shop after repair shop, I found to my dismay no one would touch it for less than $50. Panasonic, the manufacturer, wanted $69 plus parts, and I would have to wait several weeks for return shipping. I could buy a new machine for that. It seemed hopeless.

On my final, desperate call, I asked the repairman, "Should I dump this in the trash or fix it?"

"That Panasonic is a good machine," he replied. "First generation digital tape combination, and in many ways superior to the junk sold today." Then he added, "It could be a belt, but we charge $50 to look."

I had nothing to lose now. I tried fixing the machine myself. Sure enough, flopping between 2 pulleys was a small broken rubber band. I tried replacing it. The tape wobbled slightly. It made my 14-year-old nephew sound like a street wino. On hope, I visited the last shop that gave me the repair hint. "Can you sell me a replacement?" I asked.

"I'm sorry, we can't sell parts to customers."

He remembered I had just called. I begged. "My only alternative is to wait a week with no answering machine, or pay 50 bucks for someone to turn four screws and replace this rubber band," I said smugly, holding up the thin black belt.

The repairman winced. "It's not that I don't want to help you. I'm just following the rules."   He thought a few seconds, then said, "Let me see if I have one in stock." When he came back to the counter, he apologized. "I'll have to charge you $8. Business is not very good. It's not worth it for most people to fix their machines, and it's getting worse."

"Do all parts cost this much?" I was feeling a little sorry for him.

"You can't repair nothin' these days," he grumbled. "Companies would rather you buy a new answering machine than get an old one fixed. I see this everywhere with all kinds of goods: toasters, vacuums, you name it. We don't fix them any more because they're so cheap to replace. And the old ones end up in the dump." I'd unleashed an ally but my victory seemed so hollow after talking to the disgruntled answering machine repairman. Maybe I could fix this one, but how about all those other broken answering machines?

CURWOOD: I don't know, Josh. Maybe it's all part of a plot to get us to use voice mail. Commentator Josh Gerak lives in Seattle where he imports handmade products from Central America and fixes answering machines.



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