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Hacking Planned Obsolescence Through the Art of Repairing Not Replacing

At the Repair and Service Center in Vienna, the long-term unemployed retrain to be "mechatronic engineers" and repair electronic devices. Founder Sepp Eisenriegler tirelessly initiates networks, projects, and cafés—all dedicated to the art of fixing things.
By Ute Scheub / goethe.de
Jun 15, 2015
11

Dishwasher baskets. Washing machine drums. Shock absorbers. Electric motors. Fan belts. Radio tubes. Computer hard drives. Screws, screws, screws. In the basement of the Repair and Service Center (RUSZ) in Vienna’s district of Penzing, there are about 25,000 spare parts on more than 7,000 square feet, neatly sorted. The approximately 40 employees at RUSZ keep reaching for the shelves as they fix broken electronics.

In the middle of this technical jumble, Sepp Eisenriegler stands like a rock. He is 61 years old, wearing athletic clothing, confident. In a friendly, reverberating voice he explains that the operation he founded in 1998 "fixes machines as well as people." Formerly long-term unemployed or disabled workers train to become sought-after "mechatronic engineers." Radio mechanic Horst Skribek, for instance, "built in 1956," who restores old-fashioned radios. Or electrician Mahmut Hassan from Iraq, who fixes washing machines. At a customer’s request, the mostly male employees also perform repairs directly on site.

The atmosphere in the shop is friendly, the boss is popular, and they are currently drawing up their first Common Good Balance Sheet as proposed by the movement Economy for the Common Good. The remarkable record of RUSZ after 16 years: it placed 300 long-term unemployed workers in permanent work contracts, avoided about 15,000 tons of problematic waste as well as a huge amount of greenhouse gases, and heralded a renaissance of fixing things, at least in a section of society.

Eisenriegler, former teacher and environmental consultant, had always sensed an "urge to save the world," but it took an epiphany to get him to start the RUSZ. One day when his dishwasher quit on him, a grumpy service technician recommended that he buy a new one, and then charged him a 90 euro ($124) service fee just for coming out. It was just a clogged-up hose. The social entrepreneur says that this was when he decided to come up with his own response—the RUSZ—to counter those service departments that are ultimately nothing but an "extension of the sales departments."

He observed that nowadays, low-cost producers deliver poor-quality products on purpose. They can be neither opened nor repaired, have to be replaced by a new purchase after a short amount of time, and end up poisoning humans and the environment in desolate junkyards around the globe. Retailers told him that they "immediately throw out" up to a third of all Chinese product deliveries because they are deficient. Cell phones and laptops cannot be repaired because their batteries are encapsulated. Nor can someone fix modern cooling units. Ink cartridges that are almost full indicate that they are "empty."

The arte-film The Light Bulb Conspiracy by Cosima Dannoritzer documents such deliberate production flaws. It impressed Eisenriegler a lot when he saw it in 2011. Since then, this belligerent critic of "throw-away capitalism" made sure that planned obsolescence—this is the technical term for pre-determined breaking points—became a huge topic in the Austrian media. The magazine LebensArt, a publication of Eisenriegler’s former environmental consulting NGO, reported that diverse Austrian media outlets ran about 250 articles on this topic in the past few years. The newspaper Kronenzeitung, for instance, reported that planned obsolescence causes every single Austrian a loss of 1,700 euros ($2,340) each year. People were outraged.

Cheap washing machines often "have a screw loose" as well. "Designed to break," Eisenriegler calls it. The shock absorbers are the pre-determined breaking points. They are built so weakly that the ball bearings and the drum bearing break. A new washing unit, consisting of bearing, tub, and drum, however, costs the same as a brand-new "disposable washer." Buying cheap does not pay off, the social entrepreneur advises, because "for each 100 euros you spend more, your washer will last a year longer."

When RUSZ was launched in 1998, an appliance had an average product life of 12 years; today’s standard appliances hardly last longer than 6 years. The center therefore also offers "washing machine tuning": by changing the technical settings, the old appliance works longer using less power and water. Eisenriegler vehemently advises against buying a new appliance for reasons of energy efficiency, since the purchase would take about 20 years to pay off. According to Eisenriegler, the value of scrappage programs, which pay a government premium to citizens who get rid of old appliances, is clear in the name: s"crap"page.

Another RUSZ success story was the Wundertüte (Goodie Bag) of 2005 and 2006: the world’s most successful cell phone collection program, which the center initiated together with radio station Ö3 and the Catholic charity confederation Caritas. However, Caritas decided to discontinue the cooperation and carry on the project alone. Eisenriegler was deeply disappointed. In general, he constantly finds himself struggling to continue his projects. When the employment agency in Vienna stopped sending him long-term unemployed candidates for labor market integration in 2007, Eisenriegler was forced to privatize RUSZ and transform it into an association for the promotion of social entrepreneurship.

Yet all this clearly can’t stop Eisenriegler, who has won several environmental awards. He is constantly tinkering with new projects: for example, the RepairNetwork that serves all of Vienna with its more than 50 small business members, or the Viennese Dismantling and Recycling Center D.R.Z., with 60 employees and a TrashDesignPlant. For four years, Sepp Eisenriegler served as president of RREUSE, the European umbrella for social enterprises in reuse, repair, and recycling, and he successfully lobbied in Brussels to include promotion of repair networks in the new EU Directive on Waste.

His latest idea is called screw14—RepCafé: Since November 2013, laypeople can come to the RUSZ every Thursday afternoon to fix their own broken appliances with the help of specialists. "Repair cafés are a breeding ground for critiquing capitalism and for quality of life," Eisenriegler believes. Tools and coffee are free. You won't find any single-serve coffee capsules, though—they generate about 3 grams of trash per cup.

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