Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

When Electronics Die Before Their Time

Dec 31, 2019 by Julia L F Goldstein , in Recycling

Our TV stopped working suddenly. One evening we were watching a show with no problem, and the next day it refused to turn on. I tried the usual fixes: turn it off and then on again, make sure there is power to the wall outlet, check the batteries in the remote. None of that helped. The TV was getting power, but we had no picture or sound.

My first instinct was to call a repair company. My husband’s first instinct was to shop for a new TV.

I've long been frustrated by planned obsolescence. I keep stuff for a long time. It strikes me as a waste of money and resources to treat electronics and clothing as disposable, and I'm encouraged that many segments of the business world are stepping up to address the problem. Progress is slower than it should be, but at least businesses are admitting that the problem exists. It's getting easier for people to return their old stuff and have faith that it will be refurbished and sold or recycled to make raw material for new products.

I found an article suggesting that for TVs that are larger than 50 inches and less than five years old, repairing it can be cost-effective. Our TV fit into that category, so I started making calls. The technician, who I'll call Tom, showed up at our house just as we were sitting down to dinner, but I walked him upstairs to the TV room.

The good news? Tom quickly diagnosed the problem. The bad news? The motherboard had failed, it would take a week to order a replacement, and the total cost would be $425. My husband and I said that we would discuss it, but with a mid-range new TV the same size costing between $500 and $1000, I had a feeling we were destined to visit an electronics store. We paid Tom the service fee for coming out and sent him on his way.

Tom had his hand on the front door when he suddenly turned around and walked over to the kitchen, where I was trying to eat my dinner before it got completely cold. “If you don’t want to fix the TV, I can take it to e-waste for you.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “We’ll let you know.”

He stood in thought for a moment. “You know, you can get that part for about $80 online. But don’t try to replace it yourself. The first time I did one, I broke off one of the brackets.” He grabbed the service call receipt and started writing on the back. “Here’s the product number and a website where you can order. Call me if you want me to come by and install it.”

Later that evening, my husband and I discussed it. Tom was trying to moonlight and felt comfortable doing so because he had already collected the service fee that his company charged. But we weren’t so sure. Buying the part ourselves and hiring Tom to install it would save us money but not be fair to his employer. Besides, for barely more money than the full quoted repair price, we could have a brand-new TV with better sound and picture quality.

I thought, what if Tom collects our TV but, instead of sending it to e-waste, he buys the replacement part, installs it, and resells the TV on the secondhand market? That sounds like a win-win. We don’t discard a repairable 2016 TV, Tom makes some money on the side, and someone gets a decent used TV for a low price.

This scenario reminded me of 2011 when the transmission went out in my ten-year-old minivan. I could have paid $4000 for a new transmission. But I wanted a smaller car anyway, so I offered up the minivan on Craigslist. The buyer wanted a minivan for his wife but didn’t have much money. What he had was a friend who worked at a car repair shop. He probably paid little, if any, to replace the transmission. I wonder if that car is still on the road.

With the minivan story in mind, I decided to offer the TV on Craigslist for $25. The replacement part is available for less than $100 and supposedly takes about half an hour to install. 

Update, January 6: I got lots of traffic on Craigslist. Apparently, a 65-inch Samsung TV for $25 gets people's attention. As I helped the buyer load the TV into his car, he remarked that he decided to take a risk. I hope that it pays off for him and that his family can enjoy the TV for many years.