The Christian Science Monitor published a story March 4 that touches on issues 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 closed his doors after more than 50 years in business.
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. Here's an excerpt from the story:
“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. … '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 more than a little 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.
Consumers have voted with their pocketbooks: They're satisfied with products that fall apart after a few years and end up in the trash.
People talk about America's throwaway culture in relation to nondurable products, like packaging. But that's just part of the story. Think about all the products that people used to consider “durable goods,” but are now barely a step up from disposable: toys, garden tools, shoes … we can all come up with our own list.
When I posted an item about this story on The Plastics Blog last week, I got a reply right away from Allan Griff, a Bethesda, Md.-based consulting engineer, who wrote: “We consumers are at fault, too — we can't pass all the buck to the media, corporations, the government, OPEC, or anyone else. I wonder how many of us have vacuum cleaners on each floor of our homes, so we don't have to drag them up and down steps (which, in fact, is easier because of lightweight plastics). Comfort and convenience are our nemeses, both biologically (obesity epidemic), financially (tipping balance of trade) and environmentally (buying things we can easily do without).”
Over the long term, is this a sustainable business model? I don't think so. But I can't predict whether that will change next year, five years from now, or 100 years after we're gone.
Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News, and author of The Plastics Blog. For more information, or to post a comment, see www.plasticsnews.com/blog.