Recently my fridge stopped working. It was a relatively new unit, still under warranty. It’s also a name-brand device, not a no-name, grey market, low quality appliance (or so I thought).
When it died, I scrambled to save everything in it but was unable to save all the frozen and refrigerated food before it became inedible. Wasted food, wasted money, wasted time, and wasted energy. It threw my entire week off having to scramble and rethink everything, my plans, my meals, my obligations. Suffice it to say it is very surprising how critical a fridge is to our daily survival. You don’t really realize how important until it’s gone.
From the clicking sounds it was making, I suspected the capacitor had failed and it would be a quick and inexpensive repair, yet still a costly one from my losses. The first tech came and quickly shattered that hope. It turns out the compressor was non-functional. So a week plus wait for another tech. The second tech could not tell me anything more, on why, or how, but he did say that once it’s fixed it will never be like new and again could fail at any time. An almost new “durable” appliance.
So being a pragmatic, systems thinking, big picture thinker, I set out to consider the global implications of all this. Refrigerators, dehumidifiers, heat pumps, and air conditioners are all essentially the same device. They perform different functions, but all work on the same compression cycle to move heat from a colder zone to a warmer one, the opposite of what nature does, where hot chases cold.
The mechanics of how all this works is easily googled, but the issue is apparent. As the climate warms, we will need more air conditioning. As the rest of humanity catches up to the developed world they will use more refrigerators, as we move away from fossil fuel-based heating we will use more heat pumps to heat buildings and heat pump water heaters, which while niche at the moment will become more prevalent as well. And the very niche heat pump clothes dryers may also become commonplace someday. And finally, energy-hogging dehumidifiers will become more necessary, first to compensate for poor building practices but also because more airtight and better insulated buildings will have more humidity problems that were hidden by unnecessary conditioning of inefficient buildings.
Virtually all manufacturers today build their “durable” white and brown goods with planned obsolescence. They are designed to fail instead of designed for the longest possible lifetime. Concurrently, most now come with 1-year warranties, or longer warranties as a marketing gimmick, with some of the purchase price put aside by the bean counters for the inevitable failures. The reason for all this is increased profit. When “durable” appliances fail, they have created repeat customers. And oligopoly mentality, which says you don’t have any real competition, and in industries with high barriers to entry, you can build junk and your competition has little incentive not to do the same, because if they follow your lead they will also enhance their own profits. This is a free market failure. Unlike the mythical belief, the free market is not sacrosanct.
Older units were designed to be repairable, and the components were designed for durability, parts could be removed and replaced without extraneous labor costs, and replacement parts were commonly available and reasonably priced. Newer units have disposed of this philosophy, parts are often backordered, expensive, and quickly discontinued, the components are no longer designed to be accessible or replaceable (for example the piping is often foamed in place, so if there were a leak you could not reach it without destroying the appliance).
The appliance itself may be made in America or Germany or any other country, but often still has low quality components from China, which are typically subject to quality fade. The reason for my premature compressor failure might be that they forgot to add lubricant or there was contamination in the lines or the metal was too thin or there was a pinhole leak from poor casting, or low quality brazing/soldering, or who knows. When you don’t control your supply chain, your supplier can easily hide margin-increasing intentional defects (0.5 cent savings on 50 million units means $250,000 in your pocket). And in this case, premature failure is a feature and not a bug, low quality plus planned obsolescence equals further enhanced profit. Of course it should last beyond its 1-year warranty, just by one day.
And interestingly, conservatives are so anti-government that they turn planned obsolescence into something to blame the government for — not only do regulations “cause” it (lots of contortion there) but higher efficiency obviously causes low durability because a voluntary efficiency standard “forces” manufacturers to sell junk. Again, lots of contortion but hard to prove without reverse engineering every appliance on earth. Which is the point, as their logic is meant to be unverifiable so they can keep spouting BS in “good faith.”
Heat pump devices (fridges, freezers, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, air source heat pumps etc.) are uniquely bad for the environment when they fail because the refrigerant typically has a high Global Warming Potential (GWP). CFCs were phased out by the Montreal Protocol because of its extremely high ozone depletion potential (ODP), but its replacements have tended to have a very high ability to accelerate climate change. Their GWP ranges from unknown to over 17,000 times the warming caused by CO2. These devices are not designed to contain the refrigerant in case of failure, and loss of refrigerant is a common cause of device failure. And even when the failure is not caused by refrigerant loss, venting it is common practice when repairing the “sealed” system. When my fridge was repaired, its entire charge of R134A was released into my kitchen. The tech’s answer, to my dismay, was “it’s allowed.” This is not permitted for CFCs, as they have have legal reclamation requirements, but the replacements which have low ODP but have high GWP do not. There are billions of heat pump devices on the planet, and almost all of them have high-GWP refrigerants.
The implications of planned obsolescence are hidden but substantial. The wasted labor in building appliance after appliance, over a person’s lifetime a half dozen or more of the same appliance will be needed to do the same job as one durable appliance. This also means overflowing landfills from the materials that cannot be recycled, the wasted labor and energy for components that can be recycled but did not need to be, the wasted energy and fossil fuels used in rebuilding unnecessary items over and over again, the high-GWP refrigerant released into the atmosphere repeatedly. And all this for no reason. These are just the environmental effects. Then comes the financial cost of repurchasing the same item over and over. And all of these effects will multiply as the world develops and all 7.5 billion+ humans start relying on refrigeration technology. We must face the reality that climate change means we will need more and not less cooling, further multiplying the problem.
This is a ticking time bomb.
There is even an additional unexpected side effect, as the effects of the pandemic has meant that when this equipment dies people cannot easily get repairs because it could cause Covid-19 to spread (a few months earlier and I would have not been able to get repairs at all). With the decimation of employment, people cannot afford to replace these appliances, exacerbating their problems (if you cannot store or cook food, or do laundry your costs increase when you have the least money, and if you are employed you are wasting time and energy trying to stay above water while still juggling your job, which has likely changed). Not to mention the loss of food which required resources to grow and money to purchase. And appliance shopping while everything is closed is not easily done, appliance delivery requires multiple human on trucks which was not allowed. So planned obsolescence makes pandemics worse. Ditto for appliance failures during natural disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, other natural disasters, if your equipment dies when you need it most it will cost lives.
If I did not have the new appliance warranty, the repair cost would have cost upwards of $1000, which is comparable to the cost of buying a new appliance. And despite this repair, I was warned this problem could repeat itself or I could experience another appliance-crippling issue. So the recommendation is to have a backup fridge and freezer, which equals more cost, and most importantly more climate change-causing refrigerant and more waste.
So what should be done about this?
We have quietly lived with planned obsolescence for several generations, so to many this may intuitively seem to be an unsolvable problem, having no personal experience as our parents and grandparents did of it not existing. However, it is very solvable. This involves government regulation and competition. High barrier-to-entry products tend towards oligopolies (barriers-to-entry are products that are not easy to start a business building, due to high cost of manufacturing, certifications required, or a tradition of there only being a few producers so consumers are hesitant to chance trying a new product).
This is a market failure because lack of competition means you can lower quality and raise prices without consequence, and in fact your “competitors” are likely to follow suit because it means they also make more money. A rising tide lifts all boats, while consumers pay through the nose for that lift.
One tool is for governments to intervene. Governments have historically broken up monopolies and oligopolies in order to increase competition and lower prices for consumers. Companies don’t like this because their golden goose is at stake, so they perpetuate propaganda about why it’s a bad idea, and today’s consumers typically fall for it. Another option is to mandate strong warranties and durability requirements (for example 20-year warranty and 30-year <10% failure rate). A third tool is to mandate the ability to repair appliances, that parts are made available for several decades and sold without obscene markups, and that repairs are technician-friendly to keep labor costs down.
Finally for refrigeration, low-GWP refrigerants need to be made universal by law and mandates set so that old refrigerants can be quickly retired/recaptured or replaced/retrofitted. Venting them must be made illegal. Since they have low-ODP, venting is not regulated because climate change is a minimal concern. This must change. Finally, refrigeration appliances need to be designed to not lose their refrigerant, whether it is by double redundancy or other innovative methods.
There are some green shoots on these fronts — breaking up oligopolies not so much — but research is continuing into low-GWP refrigerants. All refrigerants have pros and cons, but we must consider the trifecta of toxicity (human/planet), Ozone Depletion Potential, and CO2 warming equivalence. Some alternatives are already available (propane, CO2, etc) but they can be improved upon. Durability is being taken seriously in some places, though not yet seriously enough. As consumers we must insist that our governments work to protect us instead of voting for easy answers and choosing governments who are in the pockets of corporations who see us as bank machines (then gaslight us about what they are publicly doing).
Addendum: Cell phone companies also exploit planned obsolescence via a trifecta of limited-time updates (OS and more importantly security updates), batteries designed to lose capacity, and Wirth’s Law (software bloat increasing so that you need more processing power to do the same job). Most Android phones come with 2 years of security updates. So despite the fact I have been using software to only charge to 80% and have experienced about under 5% capacity loss over 1.5 years, my phone is now about as secure as someone using the password 12345 for their online banking. Cell phones are a huge source of e-waste, and with greater utilization and short lifetimes, the problem will keep growing.
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