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Despite concern for environment, Americans throwing more and more away — even big-ticket items

Home Improvement News
Lesley Becker/Globe Staff

We have an old easy chair in our living room that needs … well, it sure needs something. It’s worn, threadbare, fraying, and looks as if people have been sitting in it for 40 years — which they have. It’s a family hand-me-down, but since it’s still sturdy, really comfortable, and a good size for the room, we don’t want just to chuck it.

So we looked into getting it reupholstered and, whoa, promptly abandoned that idea. The quotes ranged from $650 to $750, plus fabric, for a basic, no-frills job.

We’re talking about a drab J.C. Penney easy chair from the 1970s, not a gold-plated Gilded Age chaise longue that could pop up on “Antiques Roadshow.’’ For barely more than the cost of reupholstering it, we could buy a new, beautiful armchair at Crate & Barrel. Heck, we could get a new chair at IKEA for half the price of fixing up the old one.

And that is the new math behind a decision we all grapple with at one point or another: When a household item breaks, do we repair it or just replace it? Increasingly, Americans are choosing the latter — even for big-ticket items like furniture and major appliances.

“Prior to the 1940s, we were a nation that repaired almost everything,’’ said John McCollough, associate economics professor at Lamar University in Texas. “We mended old rags, furniture, appliances.’’ But over time, he said, that instinct has faded. “What’s been happening since the 1990s is that the cost of newly manufactured appliances has been coming down, and at the same time, the cost to repair them has been increasing,’’ McCollough said. That combination has had a big impact on consumer decisions.

Televisions offer a prime example of this phenomenon. Back when TVs looked like furniture (and cost just as much), if the picture went fuzzy, you called a repairman; in 1972, the TV repair trade employed 140,000 Americans, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2006, though, their ranks had dwindled to just 40,000. Nowadays, in the era of big-box price-matching and flat-screen doorbuster deals, you’re more likely to see a working TV on the side of the road than a working TV repairman. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans tossed out more than 20 million televisions in 2009 alone.

Cheap TVs were just the beginning. Appliance-repair workers are also vanishing, from a high of 180,000 to just 33,480 in May 2016. And as more workers drop out of the industry, the remaining tradespeople can charge higher rates for what is increasingly a niche service, McCollough said — which means consumers are even less likely to get an item repaired.

McCollough said it all comes down to a simple ratio: the cost to repair something versus the cost to replace it. “When the repair cost goes above 20 percent of the replacement price, consumers will select to replace. That seems to be the magic number,’’ McCollough said.

And when a service call to fix an appliance starts at $100 or more, that can leave a basic stove or dishwasher — or anything else valued at less than $500 — on the chopping block.

“I think what it comes down to is: The more expensive stuff, people are going to fix, and the less expensive stuff, people will toss,’’ said Steve Sheinkopf, CEO of Yale Appliance in Dorchester and Framingham. “You’re not going to toss a Sub-Zero fridge or a wall oven or a high-end washing machine, but you’ll replace something that’s $300, $400, $500.’’

Sheinkopf said the price of a service call varies quite a bit, but averages $200 to $250. “Are you going to spend $150 or $250 to fix a $400 dishwasher? Probably not,’’ he said. “Would you spend the same to fix a $1,000 refrigerator? Probably, because it makes economic sense.’’

Compounding the problem? Manufacturers are churning out ever-more complex products that don’t last as long as they used to. “Appliances have gotten much harder to fix,’’ said Sheinkopf, whose service techs are as likely to show up with a laptop as a toolbox. The same electronics that make modern-day appliances convenient or energy efficient can also make them trickier to repair and more likely to go on the fritz.

“It used to be if you could turn a screw, you could fix it,’’ said Billy Blake, owner of Atlantic Appliance Parts in Quincy.Modern appliances, he maintained, are now overengineered. “A refrigerator used to have one evaporator. Now a Samsung has two — it’s like buying a car with two engines.’’

Not long ago, Blake said, “the stuff was made in America, it was very simple, and people could actually fix it. Today, even when you get someone who’s qualified and does this for a living, any service department, they can’t keep up with the technology.’’

Sheinkopf said that most manufacturers no longer have service departments, outsourcing the work instead. There are so few qualified service technicians left, he said, that “we have to make them. … We have them intern with us.’’

Blake sees the same thing. “At one time, you’d pick up the South Shore phone book, and there’d be 10 guys who did this for a living,’’ he said. “They don’t exist anymore.’’

Repairs are a money-losing proposition, Sheinkopf said. “Installations and deliveries, that’s where the money is made for us. But we have to do both. You can’t keep a customer if you can’t fix their problems.’’

And modern appliances do have their share of problems. “Things break more than they should. It was so good for so long; the Maytag washer you got would last for 30 years,’’ Sheinkopf said. “When I first started here, it was a 12- to 15-year life cycle; now it’s a six- to 10-year cycle.“

Blake agrees that newer machines simply aren’t built to last. “I honestly believe this is the way it’s going: The manufacturers make something, it lasts five years, it breaks, and you get a new one,’’ he said.

McCollough said it’s a natural, if unfortunate, progression for societies to develop a throwaway mentality as they get wealthier. “Consumers are just allocating their budget based on deeply ingrained microeconomic behaviors,’’ he said. “As consumers get wealthier, and Americans have gotten wealthier over the past 100 years, they engage in more conspicuous consumption.’’

Plus, taking time out of your day to fix something — or simply staying home from work to let the repairman into the house — carries its own cost. “The wealthier we get, the more valuable our time becomes, so taking time out to repair a product becomes more expensive,’’ McCollough said.

McCollough said his wife, who’s from the Philippines, was shocked to see neighbors in their blue-collar neighborhood of Philadelphia throwing away washers, TVs, refrigerators, and sofas. “She told me that in her country you would never see that,’’ he said. To wit, when a cable on his son’s video game system broke during a family trip to the Philippines, McCollough figured they’d have to buy a new one. “My brother-in-law said, ‘No, we’ll fix it.’ ’’ They took the part to an electric-goods repair shop and got it fixed it for $3.

There’s a bit of math in that example, though, that many US consumers may be ignoring. The cost of repairing an item largely stays within the local economy. Replacing it, meanwhile, puts more of the money into the pockets of manufacturers, distributors, and other potentially far-off beneficiaries.

It’s also generally more harmful to the environment. Beyond the additional industrial emissions, extra manufacturing “usually requires more mining of raw materials, and the runoff of heavy metals into local waterways is extremely hazardous,’’ McCollough said.While 58 percent of major appliances were recycled in 2014, according to the EPA, many others still found their way into landfills, where toxic fluids can leak into the ground.

There is, gratefully, a growing sustainability movement whose do-it-yourself ethos is on display at repair clinics and “fix-it fairs’’ around the country. In fact, Blake said, his main customers are no longer industry professionals, but DIY-minded homeowners.

“I had to reinvent myself,’’ said Blake, who, at 65, now helps grateful homeowners as they try to tackle their own repairs. With his help and the endless how-to videos on YouTube, he said, “you’d be amazed at what people can do.’’

McCollough, however, believes these conscious consumers are in the minority. In fact, he sees no real limit to how far our “throwaway society’’ might go. After all, people tear down perfectly good houses and replace them with bigger ones.

One day we may even churn through cars — increasingly complex and expensive to repair — like we do TVs. “As of now, the cost of an auto repair is inexpensive compared to the cost of a new car, so cars are still getting repaired. But I think there could be a day when this is no longer the case,’’ McCollough said.

Ugh. Maybe we’ll hang on to our crappy old chair for a little while longer.

Jon Gorey is a freelance writer in Quincy. Send comments to jongorey@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of John McCollough, associate economics professor at Lamar University in Texas.