The Christian Science Monitor posted a story on its Web site yesterday that touches on some issues that plastics molders, material suppliers and designers can all appreciate. It's the story of John Huling, owner of a vacuum cleaner repair shop in Natick, Mass., who shut down his business this week. The reason? Today's vacuum cleaners are difficult and costly to repair. When they break, most people throw them away and buy new models. Huling blames the predominance of plastic parts.
He sighs as a woman comes in with a new machine. Politely referring her elsewhere, he confides, "It's a piece of junk, speaking technically ... that [machine] was made by the company that made the best vacuum cleaner that was ever made and then they switched to plastic." The way he utters the word leads me to ask about the evils of plastic. His excited cadences take me back to childhood visits when – dislodging socks or Barbie clothes from a clogged hose – he'd counsel my mother on the need for careful attention. "You can't fix half the new vacs," he says. "Everything's plastic now, even the lever that releases the handle that you have to step on every day.... They snap off. By the time I order the parts and charge labor to repair it, you don't want to do it. I'm just waiting for them to tell me they can't fix my car someday!"I think the "evils of plastic" is a bit overboard -- it's not the plastic that's the problem. Obviously you can design and manufacture a very durable vacuum cleaner using plastic parts. But too many vacuums on the market today aren't durable. Consumers buy them anyway, rather than spend hundreds more on more dependable, more durable models -- the kind worth repairing, which keep people like Huling in business. So American consumers have voted with their pocketbooks: they're satisfied with semi-durable products that fall apart after a few years and end up in the trash. Just make 'em cheap, we'll buy more. Over the long term, is that a sustainable business model? I don't think so. But I can't predict whether that will change next year, 5 years from now, or 100 years after we're gone. Thanks to EDN.com's Anablog, compiled by technical editor Paul Rako, for tipping me off to this story.