Chances are you currently have one or more products in your house in need of repair. You have a difficult decision on your hands: Do you repair or replace it? Both involve time and money.
An important factor in your decision to buy a new product or fix the one you have is probably the expense. Another is the environmental impact, which isn’t always clear. After all, if you buy a new product, you’ll have to dispose of the old one. But making endless repairs to an outdated model can expend significant resources.
So, how do you decide which is the “greenest” direction to turn? Consider the following points.
The Energy Impact
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly 40 percent of energy consumed in America goes to generate electricity. As a result, the repair vs. replace decision is largely influenced by whether the product in question draws electricity. If the product in need of repairs plugs into the wall or uses a battery, a more energy-efficient model is likely available for purchase.
Another consideration related to energy use is the source of the electricity you use. Sixty-four percent of U.S. electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, such as natural gas and coal. These fuels carry massive carbon footprints, adding millions of tons of CO2 to the atmosphere daily. If you can reduce power consumption by recycling an old appliance and buying a new one that is more efficient, you may save money as well as lower the greenhouse gas impact of your household.
The American standard for product energy-efficiency is the EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, which rates products including appliances and electronics based on their annual energy and water use. Since it was introduced in 1992 and wasn’t largely implemented until 1996, plenty of old electronics are still consuming more power than modern alternatives. If you have durable appliances approaching 20 years of use, they were manufactured at the very beginning of the ENERGY STAR era and should be examined carefully for better options.
The ENERGY STAR website allows you to look up products and their annual energy/water usage, so you can see just how much a new model will conserve.
It’s unlikely that repairing your existing electronics and/or appliances will have much of an impact on their energy/water usage. But a repair can buy time that may save you money and provide better options when you choose to replace. One more year of higher utility bills to support outdated technology may represent the bridge to bigger savings next year.
Perform a Self-Diagnosis
The internet is the ultimate resource for the do-it-yourselfer. It’s likely you can find someone to provide you with a free solution for almost any problem. YouTube, for example, returns 76.1 million results for the search “how to repair.” Everything you need to know when starting a repair is available somewhere on the net.
One DIY resource is Fixitclub.com, which provides repair manuals for everything from cars to window screens. If you can identify the problem and the repair process is five steps or fewer, you’ll often find repair is environmentally preferred to the impact of transporting new products from the store, opening/disposing of packaging, and setting up a new product. Some other great resources include the electronics-focused ifixit.com and doityourself.com, a home-and-garden repair guide to a variety of different products that you can repair yourself.
The Warranty Factor
When buying new products, especially electronics, you’ll often be asked about purchasing a coverage agreement offering repairs if the product malfunctions. Most products come with a one-year coverage plan, meaning the additional plan is likely provided by the retailer or a third party.
The programs generate lots of profit for retailers because buyers seldom use them fully. While these plans can reduce your need to replace broken products, you still have to consider the environmental impact of shipping a product for repair.
Investigate products with trade-in programs, which will collect your old product for refurbishment and reuse. This means you can own and use the product for a pre-determined amount of time, then return it to the retailer for trade-in value that reduces the price of a new product.
You can always ask about warranty coverage when purchasing a new product, but they are not a guarantee you’ll save money or reduce your environmental impact.
Editor’s note: Originally published on February 18, 2014, this article was updated in September 2018.