The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

January 2, 2008

Learning To Fix Stuff, Part 1

Back in August, when Fake Plastic Fish was less than two months old, and I’d only recently become aware of my plastic consumption, my sandal broke. In fact, the elastic strap had become so worn, I had a feeling it might break that very day as I left the house and packed an extra pair of flip flops just in case. Sure enough, it snapped as I was walking down the street. The old me would have automatically tossed them out and bought a new pair. But these were some of my most comfortable shoes, and I didn’t want to waste them, plastic or not, so I found a shoe repair shop down the street and had them fixed in fifteen minutes.

This might seem like a very simple, common sense thing to those of you who have been trying to live frugally, simply, and greenly for longer than I, but at the time, I felt so proud I wanted to call my friends and tell them the news: Guess what! We don’t have to throw stuff out! There are people who can fix it!

Since then, I’ve had a few more opportunities to fix things instead of throwing them away. For example, for months, my computer mouse was operating eratically, refusing to move the pointer where I wanted it to. The old me would have junked it and bought a new one, but this was the new me. Determined to make it work again instead of getting a new hunk of plastic, I found an article on called How To Clean And Fix A Mouse and was all set to take the mouse apart when I remembered hearing somewhere that if the surface the mouse rolls on is too slippery, the mouse might not operate properly. I was using a bare desk without a mouse pad. So I tried slipping a piece of paper under the mouse, and sure enough, that did the trick.

Recently, the wire on my favorite cheese slicer snapped. I’ve had this things for many years, and it’s served me well. Surely I could find a replacement wire for it. This, however, turned out to be a more difficult task than I expected. I visited multiple hardware stores with my cheese slicer attempting to find the right kind of wire. They all seemed to have something called “galvanized steel,” which apparently is not rust-proof or strong enough. I’m glad I actually asked for advice instead of just buying the first wire that looked similar to the one that broke.

Finally, one hardware store salesperson recommended I check a kitchenware type of store instead. So I called Sur Le Table, which seems to have locations in many states, and sure enough, they carried stainless steel replacement wires for cheese slicers. Unfortunately, as you can see below, they come in a plastic zip-lock bag.

So there’s the dilemma: a small plastic bag vs. a sturdy stainless steel kitchen tool. The kitchen tool won. I do wonder if I had checked further if I could have found stainless steel wire not packaged in plastic. But I’m pretty pleased that I was able to easily “restring” my slicer on New Year’s Eve just in time for the nice cheese our friends brought to our little party.

Now here’s my current fix-it problem. A blow dryer. Some of you might be thinking that a blow dryer is not the greenest thing to have and use in the first place. And you would be right. No arguments there. But the fact is that I do use a blow dryer on my hair for a minute or two each morning, and this one just suddenly stopped working. When I turn it on, nothing happens. Nothing. (And yes, it stopped working BEFORE I took it apart to examine it!) And yes, I have tried pressing the reset button. And yes, I have also cleaned out the air vents.

So my friend Mark was nice enough to lend me his hair dryer until I get this one fixed in Hawaii in a few weeks. Why in Hawaii? Because that’s where my electrician dad is with his pro multimeter, which we will use to figure out what’s wrong with it. The trip was already planned. I visit them in Hawaii every January for my mom’s and my birthdays. (No, flying to Hawaii is not very green either, alas.) Fixing the hair dryer is a bonus father/daughter bonding experiment. I found these instructions online, which hopefully will help:’s How To Fix A Hair Dryer. If we do figure it out, I’ll post the step-by-step process with photos.

The big question is why we don’t know how to fix things already. Why does it require all this research? And how many times have you taken an appliance to a repair place, only to be told that it’s not worth it to fix and that you should junk it and buy a new one? Everything has value and is worth fixing or repurposing in some way. But it’s not always easy to figure out how, these days. Have you all watched The Story of Stuff? It think there’s a clue in that video about why this is so.

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13 years ago

There’s nothing wrong with frugality but there are things that should go to trash like the cheese slicer, isn’t that rust on the side? That might cause you so much trouble. I remember my husband fixing electricals – it went well for some time but a few weeks or months later, it almost started fire.
Frugality is okay, for as long as it will save you from expensive replacements but always consider safety – it might even cost more.

15 years ago

Is anyone,any where chopping up bottle caps for recycling for driveways or….?

Goddess Laviyah
15 years ago

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15 years ago

Rosa, you know there are probably places you can find those vintage parts for your old sewing machine. I have a 1963 Singer that I use a lot, and when it had a problem (due to water damage when it was in storage during a move) the place I had it fixed was able to get the parts through ‘second hand’ channels. You might look up vintage sewing machine clubs and see if they have any sources for you. I will never buy a new machine, if this one dies someday I will look for another vintage model.

I agree this is a great thread. Things are certaintly built not to last these days. That is why I tend to shop at second hand shops and flea markets. I have a waffle iron I got for free at the end of a flea market that still has a cloth cord and works like new! Things were built to last even a few decades ago, and these appliances are still to be had. Add in that the avocado and stainless styles are now back, if you care, you will be right in style!

The Biscuit Queen

Rejin L
15 years ago

Cliff, don’t forget about planned obsolescence. Many products are made to have a short lifespan, so that people will have to buy more stuff. Yes, in many cases we just want a shiny new toy. But many appliances are designed to last just beyond the warranty. (And even I could fix some things if the fuses weren’t glued in.)
Oh, and Happy New Year, Beth!

15 years ago

There is another side to the repair/replacement issue. At least in the electronics area, the things we buy are orders of magnitude more complex than what we had just a couple of decades ago, yet they are far more reliable. In addition they are miniaturized. At one time a person could remove and replace a resistor because it was large enough to see and manipulate. Now, there can be thousands of components in circuitry the size of your fingernail. You can’t do any repair “at the component level” whether you are an individual or working for a company that makes repairs! That entire fingernail sized circuit board can be tossed and replaced for far less time and effort and degradation to the environment than using the old soldering iron (and leaded solder).

Things are made the way they are not to make things worse for us environmentally, but because they are in so many many ways superior to what came before that they are appealing to us. People aren’t being forced to buy iPods, they are doing so by the millions because the iPod is an incredible piece of technology. So it goes with flat screen TV’s, GPS, etc. In addition, by weight or volume, you could gather up all your modern electronics devices and they would make up a fraction of the weight and volume of the heavy, unreliable things of yore (reel to reel tape recorders, heavy CRT floor model TV’s, huge stereo receivers, big load of vinyl LP’s etc.) Not to mention that they are far more frugal with electricity.

Yes, such things as shoes, clothes, hair dryers and kitchen items can still be repaired because they remain the basically simple things they have been all along. For many other things, technology has raced far beyond the ability of you and I to do any kind of repair beyond replacing a major component, because we have no idea what is going on inside and no access to the sophisticated equipment necessary to diagnose what is wrong.

I made a career out of high tech electronics repair and the work was very satisfying but I would never trade the incredible capabilities of modern electronics and the equally incredible reliability of same to regain the satisfaction of repair.

Our big challenge is not to be able to repair the things we have, though there is sure no harm in doing what you can do, but to be able to resist the temptation to get rid of perfectly functional things just because something new has come out and the thing we have seems “old”.

15 years ago

Another option is to buy replacements for broken and un-fixable items at second-hand stores. Goodwill etc has perfectly good household items for cheap!

Michelle in Tennessee

Mutual Information
15 years ago

The answer to your big question is that our educational system (at least when I grew up) does not provide formal classes on basic or practical electricity. If you are lucky, a good Chemistry or Physics teacher may have imparted some information as to how a house, car, computer, or appliances might work. Even so, how many of us would remember w/o some reinforcement. And truth being told, how many of us care? As long you can find (and pay) a contractor or repairman to do perform the task, that relieves you the burden of knowledge. As someone also pointed out, this keeps the present system going.

When I was young, I was lucky to have a friend that knew how to fix cars. This helped me get over my initial intimidation of car repair. This also gave me courage to tackle other complex repair jobs like major appliances and electronics. (My profession is technical so that helps too.)

The hair dryer is really a simple device and the website you referred to seems like a good starting point. If, you need to probe (use right hand) with the unit plugged in, try not to get shocked. Best of luck.

15 years ago

I’m a big fan of shoe repair… my two pairs of dressy boots are over 20 years old! There’s no more shoe repair place where I live, but there is a great one 30 minutes south run by two older men who keep tuned in to the soccer channel all day! The problem is that younger people are not going into shoe repair so it could be a dying art.

Loved the story of the cheese slicer too.

Here’s our blender/food processor story: We received a blender/food processor for our wedding. It looks like a normal blender, and one “container” is a normal blender pitcher-type thing with a blade in the bottom. Then there is a white attachment that sticks into the
blender when you take the pitcher off, and on top of that goes a two-part wider but shorter plastic
container with a blade–that’s the food processor thing and it works great.

So a few years ago the bottom half of the plastic food processor container got a crack in it, that eventually started allowing food to leak out. We wanted to just replace that part, but it was cheaper to buy a whole new food processor. But we didn’t want to buy a whole new appliance and the new ones didn’t even do what we wanted then to do. Finally we just bought the replacement part online, and have been happy ever since.

We also love the photos of the cats!!! Hope you’re having fun as new pet parents!

15 years ago

My dh and I were just discussing the other day that for now on, attempting to have something fixed will be our first step when something breaks.

terrible person
15 years ago

To “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” add, “Repair”!

Wouldn’t it be great if products were actually designed to be fixed, rather than thrown out as soon as one tiny component breaks, because everything is too tightly put together and intricately packaged to isolate what needs to be fixed or replaced and then repair it? It would be great if it were *economical* to do so, too — if paying someone to fix things didn’t cost more than replacing them. Of course, if we figured the actual disposal costs (landfill space, chemical pollution) into the price of replacement, fixing would look much better in comparison.

You’ll enjoy learning to fix your bicycle. Bikes are very modular.

On NPR this morning, I heard this piece. Apparently Starbucks share price is down. One of the reasons: the cost of plastic lids. Oh, how my heart bleeds for them.

Hey, remember that a new law that went into effect Tuesday in California requires stores to cash in gift cards with less than $10 on them. I tried this yesterday with a Starbucks card I had been given, and most of the employees had no idea what I was talking about. Finally they got the manager, and he told me that I could go online and put in the card number, and I would be sent a check, but that in six months, I’ll be able to hand in my plastic gift cards for nice paper and metal money at any store.

15 years ago

Ahh, the broken hair dryer. When I was little, my mother had this hair dryer that her dad had found and given to her. Everytime it would break down, my dad would take it out to the shop and fix it. It hardly blew hot air and yet he wouldn’t let it die. My mom really just wanted a new one. It had black electrician’s tape on it and was pretty beat up before Dad finally bought a new one.

15 years ago

We got a newish sewing machine fixed a few weeks ago, but we are having to throw away an old one – the fixit guy would charge us $65 just to take it apart and look, and he said if it has any broken parts or needs a new motor, it’s impossible to get those parts.

It makes me really sad because not only do we have a cousin who *wants* a refurbished sewing machine, but it’s a big old hunk of plastic and metal going in the dump.

But if nobody makes parts for them, then somebody has to warehouse all the broken ones to scavenge parts, and as far as we can find, nobody around here does that.

Green Bean
15 years ago

Love this post. We have become a throw away society in just my lifetime and I’m only 36. I remember the days when it was cool to cover the holes on your jeans with patches and we visited the shoe repair man to get our shoes re-soled. We can and need to go back to that way of life and hopefully will encourage more folks to go into fields related to repair instead of just selling new stuff.

15 years ago

We need to have people who can fix things – shoe repair people, electric repair people, etc. You are not only helping the environment here but you are also doing something for the human community and the economy by employing people who know how to fix and repair things!

15 years ago

You’re right about the cheese slicer wire. I’ve tried to use galvanized drawn steel wire instead of stainless steel, and it just doesn’t work.