Inside The Real Repair Shop 4

Free to take, but who bears the cost?

This time, I want to talk about something that’s seemingly become the norm for many streets up and down the land (in the UK for people reading this elsewhere).  The ‘free to take’ trend has arrived from somewhere, and I can’t quite put my finger on why it’s happened.

I have a few working theories, that I’d like to share with you.  Indulge me for a few minutes if you please.

With UK-wide social restrictions still in place and most of the high street closed at the moment, many of us are taking more walks locally to spend time, which isn’t only good for our health, it’s also much, much kinder on one’s wallet. Whilst out walking, have you noticed how many households leave small appliances and other domestic items out on the pavement on-offer to passers-by? I have. To be honest, I never know if the items are fair game, or if I should ask permission before taking something.  Whilst mulling this over, during the past few months, I’ve decided that it is OK to take discarded items, if it’s obvious that they’ve been abandoned and that I can do something useful with them. I suspect that there are many reasons why items are being abandoned like this, and I’d like to share my thinking with you.  If you’re still with me, I hope you’ll find it interesting.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, March’21. An abandoned 4-slice toaster. It tested OK and looked in good condition after a wipe-down. Maybe it didn’t match the original owners’ colour scheme?

This year so far, I have acquired a cordless kettle, a 4 slice toaster, and two Dyson vacuum cleaners.  Why you ask? It’s a good question, but before I go in to why I think they were all left out for ‘Magpie Matt’, here’s another thing;  The kettle and the toaster worked perfectly, with a clean-up. The two Dysons needed thirty pounds’ worth of spare parts between them.  When new, the vacuum cleaners would have been worth about £300, each.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, March’21. A Dyson vacuum cleaner left out by a bin, waiting for some love and a replacement (second hand) motor and upright chassis, all for under £20.

So, why do folk do it? Why leave items out, working or not, for others to take for free? Here is a list of possible reasons why.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, March’21. The replacement motor required for the Dyson was under £10 and the plastic chassis required was £10. MUCH less than the price of a new machine and surely MUCH better to fix this otherwise working order machine and save it from the crusher.

1  Folk just get bored with an item, and see so little value in it any more that they want to get shot of it quickly but feel, possibly with some guilt, that they should give it away, rather than disposing of it. We’re bombarded with advertising that tells us to replace things often by retailers and manufacturers, so it’s hardly surprising that some people feel this way.

2  It won’t fit in the bin.  General waste bins should only ever contain non-recyclable plastics, polythene, some packaging, kitchen waste and a sprinkling of dust.  However, take a look at your street on bin day, and you’ll see other items poking out from under the lid. Vacuum cleaners don’t usually fit in a 140 litre bin, which could explain why we see them on the pavement, from time to time. The local amenity tip is an option for the responsible owner when looking for a place to offload items, but if you don’t own a car, the whole process can be a bit of a chore.

3  The value of the item, which may have broken is now low and not worth repairing or the expected cost of repair outweighs the cost of replacement.  This issue is as wide as it is long and could easily form the basis of a master’s degree.  I simply can’t do this point justice here.  What I can say here is that the value of a broken item, which might be repairable is often zero, many manufacturers don’t make enough effort to support products in-life and there are limited repair and knowledge opportunities for people locally.

Obviously, there’s more to it and these are only three examples of drivers that can influence what happens to an item, after it’s become useful or has broken.

However, there is hope. Repair Cafés have become very popular across the world, and we’re very lucky to have at least two well-run (Repair Cafés) in the Adur and Worthing area (UK). I believe that the BBC’s very popular The Repair Shop is changing attitudes too, and it’s theme of keeping things longer with repair and restoration is a winning formula. Indeed, my own waiting list for repairs grows longer by the day. The French Government recently implemented a scheme to appraise repairability on items sold there, and it was revealed recently that the UK Government plans to do similar.  I’m watching progress with a beady eye.

If you’ve been following my articles here, you’ll know that I advocate keeping things for longer, with good maintenance and the odd dose of repair. It’s usually kinder to our environment, our wallets and helps slow the march of discarded items going to landfill, which is better for us all.

What’s the strangest item that you’ve seen abandoned? Please get in touch- maybe this could be a new feature!

Inside The Real Repair Shop 1

They do make them like they used to. You just have to know where to look.

Think back 30 years, and if you can’t, ask anyone over the age of 42. In the place you grew up, how old was the kettle? It might seem a strange question, but as a (slightly odd) child, I noticed stuff like that. I can fondly remember my parents’ own Russell Hobbs K2 kettle, which had been given to them as a wedding gift and was still going strong after they divorced, 25 years later. Unlike their marriage, the kettle was well engineered, robust and easy to mend.

Russell Hobbs advert for the seminal K2 kettle, familiar to many. Image taken from Google Images, FixItWorkshop is not the copyright owner.

Not long ago, long service was expected from appliances and my friends and relatives had similar experiences. Trust me, I’ve asked them. Buying spare parts was also a thing. You could easily repair kettles of that vintage with basic tools and without the need of a yet-to-be-invented online video. Hardware shops would stock cost-effective spare parts like elements and rubber seals to keep your kettle running for longer, but over time, this type of thing has become the reserve of nerds like myself.

During the last 40 years, the market for small appliances such as vacuum cleaners, toasters, kettles and much more has become congested with laughably cheap goods, and while the prices can make items accessible, it’s usually a case of ‘buy cheap, buy twice’. 

Manufacturers have perfected built-in obsolescence to such a degree that they can time your product to fail, just after the warranty expires. Bad for many reasons, but the main thing is that a £15 toaster thrown out after two years will probably end up as landfill. There are free, environmentally kinder disposal routes available from your local council in the UK, but many people just don’t bother.  Sad, but true.

It’s still possible to buy something well-designed and robust that will be supported by a responsible manufacturer, you just need to know what to look for.

Do you really need it?

Just because your friend has a kettle with an interactive disco display controlled by their iPhone, do you need one?  Probably not.  No one does. Google ‘the best kettle’ and you’ll find products that have more knobs and whistles than a power station.  This makes them more complicated and likely to go wrong in the future and contain more precious metals, increasing their environmental impact.  Remember what you need the product to do. Keep it simple.

How long will it last, will it be any good?

This is a tricky one to quantify as lots of things affect that.  But ask yourself, is a kettle costing a tenner going to be a family heirloom to hand-down?  Probably not.  It will boil water, it will make a lot of noise, it will be inefficient.  Take  customer reviews on Amazon with a pinch of salt. Trust organisations such as ‘Which’ to guide you on matters of performance and longevity before handing over your hard-earned wedge.

Can I get help when I need it?

Many retailers and manufacturers are not set up to take care of your product once it’s in your hands.  At the end of your twelve-month warranty, is there a local agent or are there spares available to fix your product, when you need it?  Before making a purchase, do some online research on your chosen toaster manufacturer.  Do they have a help desk, can they supply reasonably priced parts, are there engineers out there who can help repair your item? Responsible manufacturers are out there…

Russell Hobbs K65, Henry HVR160 vacuum cleaner, Kenwood Kmix KMX750 Dualit classic toaster. What do they all have in common? All have reasonable support from the manufacturer, after purchase.

Give yourself time to work this stuff out, and you’ll end up replacing your appliance less often.  Better still, you’ll be able to fix it when it goes wrong, saving it from becoming waste. You’ll also be able to pass it on when the time comes, which is a far better thing to do.  If buying new isn’t an option, don’t be afraid to buy quality appliances second-hand from places like eBay, Facebook and Gumtree.  It might not come in a new box with a receipt, but it’ll still be decent, without costing the earth.

Matt or Fixitworkshop is not affiliated with any of the products shown in this article.  The items displayed are for illustration only, but were chosen with care based on Matt’s own repair knowledge and experiences.

fixitworkshop.co.uk repair service and blog

The diary of a tinkerer: Stories, advice, tips and sometimes the odd failure to inspire your own repair.

Repair shop | Repair blog | Repair information source | Making everyday things last longer

The tinkerer at FixItWorkshop.co.uk is Matt Marchant

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FixItWorkshop, Worthing, July 2020, Matt with a load of food mixers

You can follow me on Twitter (if you want)

I also write occasionally for Bangernomics (a car website)

I write for Inside Magazines (Worthing area) every other month

  • I write about things I fix and even those I can’t
  • I offer a repair service for a small fee
  • I occasionally volunteer at Repair Café and similar events in Sussex and surrounding area

I love repairing things and hate throwing things away that can be saved. There’s far too much waste in the world.  Many things that can sometimes appear unrepairable, are indeed repairable, with a little tinkering.

I want to encourage people who doubt their own ability to repair their things, to give repair a go.  After all, if ‘that thing’ isn’t working, grab a screwdriver, take it apart and investigate.  What have you got to lose?

I’ve been tinkering with bikes, cars, coffee machines, toys and vacuum cleaners and pretty much anything that can be dismantled since I could hold a screwdriver.  I’ve worked for BT as a senior engineer, and I’ve studied design, business and electronics.

Enjoy the repair diary of a tinkerer.  I hope it gives you a nudge to repair your broken thing.  If you can’t, I might be able to help.

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