Why Bother To Repair Stuff, Just Chuck It


Should we all be trying to repair everything in order to save resources? Or should we be trying to save resources by only repairing those things where it saves resources to do so? The answer is, obviously, that second, but that then means that we’ve got to measure the resources being used properly. Something that the price system does for us very nicely – as long as we’re including externalities that it. And the time we spend doing the repairing.

Which is where these repair cafes and fairs fall down:

A vacuum cleaner, a hair straightener, a laptop, Christmas lights, an e-reader, a blender, a kettle, two bags, a pair of jeans, a remote-control helicopter, a spoon, a dining-room chair, a lamp and hair clippers. All broken.

It sounds like a pile of things that you’d stick in boxes and take to the tip. In fact, it’s a list of things mended in a single afternoon by British volunteers determined to get people to stop throwing stuff away.

This is the Reading Repair Cafe, part of a burgeoning international network aimed at confronting a world of stuff, of white goods littering dumps in west Africa and trash swilling through the oceans in huge gyres.

Well, OK, are we actually saving resources by doing this?

Today, the repairers will divert 24kg of waste from going to landfill and save 284kg of CO2. Some items can’t be fixed on the spot – notably a hunting horn split in two, which requires soldering with a blow torch – but very little needs to be thrown away.

Landfill costs £60 a tonne or so. So, they’ve saved £1.44 in costs there. CO2 should be at $80 a tonne, call that £17. So, generously, we’ve saved £20 in resources through this afternoon’s work. And what were the resources expended in making this saving? We’re not told how many people were doing the repairing, nor how many people hung around to wait for it to be done but it would be extraordinary if fewer than 20 hours of human time went into this.

In one manner this is, definitionally, economic. People like doing this – otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it – and thus this is an increase in human happiness, in utility, the very point of our having an economy in the first place. In another manner it ain’t economic at all. Valuing human time at £1 an hour or less? No, a waste of the one truly non-renewable resource we’ve got, lifespan.

Which gives us our answer – if you enjoy doing this then do it. But don’t think you’re making the world a richer place by doing it for the resources being expended are greater than those being saved. Other than that enjoyment it’s better simply to chuck the stuff.