The “three Rs” – reduce, reuse, and recycle – have been an alleged Holy Grail of progressive waste experts, consultants, and the environmental movement for many years. They are three different concepts that work in tandem to achieve common goals: increase efficiency, reduce our need to harvest natural resources by getting greater use out of what we already have, and build a more sustainable society.
The recently tabled Bill 155, the Waste Free Ontario Act (WFOA), seeks to place a greater emphasis on the three Rs principles, to create a circular economy with zero net waste sent to landfills. A lofty goal, to be sure, and while they are not insurmountable, there will be colossal hurdles along the way.
The three Rs have long been viewed an ideal, but in practice, their implementation has been spotty. Traditionally, while reduce, reuse, and recycle are always spoken in the same breath, the vast majority of effort and attention has been paid to recycling— arguably the least valuable of the three Rs. Fundamentally, the emphasis on 3Rs has steered policymakers away from a larger public policy debate
Recycling is at this point an icon of the environmental movement, and it is in some ways a success story, but it also has some decided disadvantages. It requires a lot of effort and energy, and it can be a significant emitter of greenhouse gases. Recycling also serves to perpetuate our throwaway mentality, where we toss anything as soon as we’re bored or it develops any kind of defect. It’s seductively easy to just throw something in a bin – blue or otherwise – and forget about it.
Recycling certainly has a place and a value, but it cannot be the only solution. By comparison, the concept of reusing items over and again to increase their lifespan has been perhaps the most neglected of the “Rs.” It requires the biggest change in how we think and behave. It requires an end to our throwaway mentality, and a willingness to repair and maintain items.
If Ontario is to move towards the WFOA’s zero net waste ideal, producers will have to establish basic infrastructure for repair and maintenance of our everyday items. Small appliances, in particular, present significant challenges that will need to be addressed.
Small appliances, big problems
Small appliances – vacuum cleaners, blow-dryers, electric shavers, toasters, and others – are symptomatic of many of the problems faced along the road towards a waste-free Ontario.
Small appliances have become increasingly difficult to recycle since the 1980s and the expansion of Big Box stores, which sell cheaper products, often imported from China. These
products are designed using dozens or even hundreds of small parts made up of moulded plastic, metal screws, glass, computer chips, and other materials, and to be recycled properly to avoid cross-contamination with other recycling streams, they must be carefully dissembled, and each of their parts recycled separately. It is a very time, resource, and cost intensive process, assuming people even bother to recycle them, instead of throwing them away or leave them at the curb to be picked up.
There was a time when it was common for people to repair broken or damaged appliances, but increasingly, consumers are buying cheap or disposable appliances rather than paying the extra cost to buy products that are built to last.
This ultimately costs them more. It’s cheaper in the long run to buy something high quality and maintain it over many years than it is to constantly buy replacements, but most people don’t plan that far ahead. We have moved more and more towards a culture of disposability rather than maintenance, and that must change, but will require a culture shift from consumers and manufacturers.
Dunn’s Appliance Repair
In 2014, we undertook a case study on the issues related to repair and stewardship of vacuum cleaners and similar small appliances in Peterborough, Ontario with the assistance of staff at Dunn’s Appliance Repair.
Dunn’s has been in operation in downtown Peterborough since 1947. Traditionally, it has focused on the repair of small appliances like vacuums and electric shavers, as well as the sale of replacement parts for them. In recent years, that changed as customers increasingly moved away from maintenance and began to prefer buying cheap, new products. Sales of new vacuums used to be a minor source of income for Dunn’s, but has become central to the company’s survival.
The biggest problem is manufacturers designing and distributing products that simply cannot be repaired and consumers opting to purchase them. Batteries for rechargeable appliances, for instance, are often glued in place and impossible to replace. Plastic housings for engines and moving parts are not cost-effective to replace. Vacuum engines are built with non-removeable bearings, meaning engines can no longer be rebuilt after a certain period of use. Parts are not standardized— Dirt Devil vacuum products, sold since the late 1990s, use more than 70 different filters and dirt collection bag sizes, making inventory a nightmare for retailers and repair shops and discouraging consumers.
Roy Wheeler, repair staff at Dunn’s, provided a list of companies whose vacuums are now difficult or impossible to repair, and the reasons why. One example is Dyson, which we will discuss more in a moment:
“There are no parts available for the newer models of vacuums. Parts are starting to become available for some of the older models. There are restrictions on becoming a service depot for Dyson. They require a minimum order of $5,000 and the parts are pre-determined by Dyson. You can’t choose which parts to order; you get what you get.”
A few companies are still producing vacuums that can be repaired and the parts to do so – like Filter Queen, Electrolux, and Kenmore – but they are increasingly the minority. Repair shops like Dunn’s are shutting down all across Ontario, costing us well-paying jobs that teach strong technical and entrepreneurial skills. It’s not just bad for the environment; it’s bad for local economies and the workforce.
Jessica Danziger-Lin, public relations and communications executive for Dyson Canada, said Dyson takes sound measures to protect the environment.
“You may be aware that our full-size machines have a five-year warranty, which includes parts and labour,” she said. “Dyson machines have no bags or filters to replace (our filters are washable) reducing waste.”
Dyson provides a call-in support service based in Toronto, which assists users in how to best use the machine, from washing filters to fixing blockages. “If the problem is too complex to deal with over the phone, our customer service team will arrange for a customer’s machine to be repaired at one of our 14 authorized repair centres across Canada,” said Danziger-Lin. “In this way, [we are] supporting the longevity of our machines.”
Arguably, the company is not promoting sustainability because local repair shops are being driven out of business and local repair expertise is lost. Taking advantage of Dyson’s repair system and five-year warranty means shipping goods long distances to one of 14 service centres.
Dyson’s system also requires buyers to invest time and mental energy on the phone trying to figure out what is wrong with their electrical products, whereas many consumers would prefer to let local experts handle the repairs, especially after the initial $400–600 investment.
Companies like Dyson need to drop their obsessive control of product specification and repair tools and allow local businesses to play the role they must—supporting consumers and providing local services. In sum, these companies need a different business model.
For at least 20 years, many educators, activists, and academics have advocated that the traditional 3Rs hierarchy be replaced by a 6Rs waste hierarchy. Indeed, this discussion has informed core ideas about the need to promote a Circular Economy.
This order of preference, as shown in the diagram below, clearly shows the different options for waste prevention and management, with the most favourable option (refusing waste) located at the top of the triangle, and the least favourable option (rot – sending waste to landfill) at the bottom.
See Zero Waste Hierarchy chart and the 6 Rs below:
- REFUSE to buy things you don’t need, products that are over- packaged or are hard to reuse or recycle, or cheap, plastic products that you know will have limited lifespan.
- REDESIGN of products to reduce over-packaging; design for disassembly, re-assembly, re-use, repair, and recycling.
- REDUCE the amount of goods you do buy; consume less, waste less, use less energy; and buy in bulk and for multi-purposing.
- REUSE items by repairing those you can; buying durable, maintainable, quality products; avoiding single or limited use items; repurposing; and, supporting reusable alternatives.
- RECYCLE items you cannot reuse and curb buying habits to support recyclable products and packaging.
- RECOVER energy and resources from your food waste by backyard composting, or use the municipal compost waste collection system.
(ROT – the least favoured option – means sending unusable waste to the landfill.)
The 6Rs provide a basis for understanding the complex challenges facing governments, industries, communities, waste handlers, consumers educators, and activists as we attempt to implement policies and regulations to support laws such as WFOA.
The path forward
The missteps of small appliance manufacturers are a good example of the problems that exist in the small appliance industry, but they are only an example, and they are by no means the only sector with issues like this.
Moving forward, we will have to enact changes on both the consumer and manufacturer side of the equation if small appliances are not to be a roadblock to the goals of the Waste Free Ontario Act.
Education will also be crucially important. Consumers must begin to understand that they will save money over the long haul by spending a little extra upfront on higher quality products, rather than going for something cheap and disposable that will need to be replaced after a year or two.
Government can also play a role, enacting legislation to encourage manufacturers to use more durable materials and designs that allow for easier repairs.
It’s going to require a lot of effort and a lot of willingness to change from all sectors of society: government, business, and private citizens. But these are goals within our reach, and the reward will be a better and healthier environment, as well as a stronger and more sustainable economy.