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essays

Plastic Parts, Plastic Hearts

by Sandra Goldmark
January 11, 2019

Sandra Goldmark is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice at Barnard College, where she serves as Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action. She is the founder of Fixup, a social enterprise aimed at building a healthy, circular, model of consumption. 

One Christmas, Claire brought us her favorite stuffed reindeer to fix. She brought him to one of our holiday pop up repair events. In the spirit of the season, we wanted to fix him for a reasonable price. When we opened him up and found a cracked plastic gear, we groaned.

Context: I’m the Founder of Fixup. Our aim is to build a healthy, sustainable, circular economy of good “stuff.” We operate short term repair shops and events, and help others build repair and reuse into their organizations. We’ve fixed thousands of household items and have a repair success rate of about 85%. A fair number of our successful fixes – and a disproportionate number of our “repair fails” – have involved plastic.

Inside Claire’s reindeer’s stuffed chest cavity, a set of plastic gears connected to a small motor. One of these gears was cracked and couldn’t grab the neighboring cog, so the deer’s legs didn’t move. We groaned when we discovered this because plastic is, very simply, a pain to fix. It’s hard to glue, you can’t really refinish it, and once compromised – cracked, scratched, nicked – it’s very hard to do anything useful with it at all.

When plastic is used on component parts that take any stress, especially moving parts, it can mean that one small break makes the entire object useless.

There are lots of other items that have this problem, and once we confronted the problem over and over again in our repair shops, we began to experience very concretely the impact plastics can have on our stuff, our waste, and our patterns of consumption - in more ways than the obvious plastic bags and bottles.

One of the items that launched Fixup was what I call a “fake nice” desk lamp. I purchased it at a Kmart. It’s brushed silver in color, and it resembles a high-quality swivel neck desk lamp. But it had a plastic part right in the swiveling part of the neck - exactly where all the stress is concentrated, the point with the largest range of motion. Not surprisingly, the lamp broke right at that plastic piece, and the head now dangles grotesquely from the arm (or shoulder, perhaps I should call it). This is why I call the lamp “fake nice.” It looked good, but it was designed to fail.

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Plastic is, overall, very difficult to work with, from fixing obvious breaks to simple maintenance. It’s doesn’t take glue well, it can break when you try to drill into it, and it’s tricky to refinish. Plastic looks good new, and it’s relatively easy to clean – but only up to a point. Once the finish or the structure is compromised, it is much harder to renew than other materials.

One might say there are lots of high tech ways to solve the problems of broken plastic parts - why not just 3D print a new one? That’s technically possible, but our aim for our customers is convenient, quality, affordable repairs. We need to be able to diagnose and fix each item quickly and easily. We could, for example, have 3D-printed a new part for the reindeer’s heart or my lamp’s neck. But the amount of time it would take to scan the old part - since manufacturers do not make parts drawings available, by and large - adjust the drawing as needed, and print the new part would make it cost prohibitive. When the basic material choices are not sound, just throwing more plastic at the problem isn’t the right solution.

From a fixer’s point of view, one solution is more thoughtful design and material choices to begin with. Repair is much easier when the original design considers the full life of the product, and plans for a long life. We’ve fixed thousands of lamps, chairs, and toys in our shop. It’s very quick and easy to fix things with relatively simple technology – when they are made well, and when the broken part is not plastic.

A short look over our database of repairs reveals a depressing litany of moments when we were stymied by plastic, unable to complete the fix and forced to send the object back to the customer, most likely consigned to the trash.

We keep track of what the customer tells us when they bring the object in, and we record the fixer’s steps, and success (or not). Here is a sample of some of the ways plastic crops up in our database. You can practically hear the frustration in the fixer’s voices:

From the customers:

fix deformation of plastic

wobbly - plastic part broken

plastic pieces are broken

always reads open, doesn’t play. Plastic hinge broken

won’t sit in stand because broken plastic, please figure out how to fix

From the fixers:

couldn’t fix, broken plastic. All rusted and screw missing.

plastic socket broke, need to order new

plastic gear shattered but replacement part unavailable

no repair - deteriorated plastic clasp for wind/sew button

no repair: CDs removed, broken plastic mechanism inside (would cost $100 to repair)

no repair - cracked plastic part

bad plastic gear inside, pls recycle

starts ok. Broken plastic thing inside, will not oscillate again

melted plastic switch inside, can't fix, not safe

We often think of the problems with plastics as a question of single use items – water bottles and grocery bags and picnic forks. These items are designed to be used once, and discarded, and the problems inherent in this system are enormous. But my journey into the entrails of Claire’s reindeer, and the hundreds of other little plastic parts we’ve fought with over the past 5 years, have taught me that plastic makes many objects disposable.

The basic design of the reindeer’s workings – and my lamp, and many of the thousands of objects in our database of repairs, are fundamentally compromised by the incorporation of plastic into designs in a way it should never have been used.

That’s why we groaned when we saw Claire’s little reindeer’s broken plastic cog during his open-heart surgery. We knew we were up against a tough fix. We managed to epoxy the gear. We managed to get the patched gear into the reindeer (it took two tries). We restuffed him and stitched him up, and we laughed and maybe even cried a little bit when he danced and sang: a little Christmas miracle. Though, to be honest, I have to admit that I am not sure how long his new heart will last. It wasn’t what we call a good fix.

It’s hard to imagine a world without plastic today. But it is possible, for me, to imagine a world where new goods are no longer condemned from the start to disposability by “fake nice” design, where cheap plastic parts that cannot possible take stress are used in joints and as levers, and where plastic is used judiciously, thoughtfully, responsibly. It’s possible to imagine a world where we work hard to take care of what we have, whether it’s little reindeer or lamps or our homes or even the New York City subway system, by designing it well in the first place, maintaining and repairing it, and giving everything we make as long a life as possible. Because beyond just lamps and reindeers, the spirit and culture of maintenance is something that I believe our culture is sorely lacking. But it’s certainly possible to imagine it growing – to imagine that we might break our single-minded enthrallment with new stuff, and begin to perceive, protect, and increase the value of all that we already have. It’s possible to imagine that Claire’s reindeer is still dancing and singing somewhere – I hope he is.

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