The disposable culture started small. In 1892 William Painter, founder of the Baltimore Bottle Seal Company, patented the bottle cap. The bottles were returned and refilled, but the bottle caps were thrown away. They only worked once. Painter’s chief salesman at the time was called Mr Gillette, who went on to apply the same principle to his own invention, the disposable razor blade. Today almost everything has its disposable version – cameras, contact lenses, barbecues – but the concept has been taken a step further. For economic reasons, most of the electrical equipment that we buy for the home is effectively disposable. This is because it is usually cheaper to replace them than to mend them. This applies not just to radios and toasters, but also to fridges, televisions and dishwashers. We now live in a disposable culture.

Most people feel uncomfortable about this new trend. We know we should be reducing the amount of waste we produce and recycling as much as possible – although despite all our efforts, landfill continues to increase. It’s hard to slip a CD player into the bottom of the rubbish these days without feeling guilty, especially if you suspect that all it needs is a simple repair. But who fixes that sort of thing these days? And how much would they charge you?

Not only are we throwing more away these days, but also, modern life seems filled with new appliances – set-top boxes, modems, routers ... . Most people have little idea how these appliances work, or even what they do. To the untrained eye, they appear to be nothing more than plastic boxes that get a bit hot when you plug them in. Every new gadget seems to come with its own remote control, without which it cannot be used, but which you will inevitably lose. In many cases, the stuff is literally impossible to repair because the spare parts are not supplied or there is nothing to fix. What do you do, for example, with a broken electric toothbrush? If you’re like me, you go out and buy a new one, and then another new one, and then another, until eventually you learn that electric toothbrushes are basically just a trick to make you spend more and more money.

With persistence, one may still find someone out there willing to make the necessary repairs to your broken bread-making machine, but even they will feel obliged to inform you that, given the likely price of the service, you’d probably be better off throwing away the old one and buying the latest model. To insist that something should be mended even though that will cost more than a brand-new replacement is eccentric, to say the least.

This dilemma occasionally opens up the possibility of fixing the demanded goods yourself. If something is next to worthless anyway, why not take it apart and see if you can figure out what’s wrong? I have had particular luck with cheap, plastic, battery-operated children’s toys, where bad manufacture is usually the cause of the fault and some strong glue or tape is usually all it needs to put it right. Small children tend to be incredibly impressed by this sort of thing, which is probably the only reason I bother. I wouldn’t suggest you attempt to repair your own microwave, although I managed it once, spending several days carefully making a new door latch from a blob of plastic. It was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life – a difficult triumph to mention in casual conversation, perhaps, but I’m still trying.

While some repairs are certainly beyond the ability of the ordinary consumer, many are incredibly simple. Finding willing repairmen may be almost impossible, but tracking

In what way is William Painter associated with the disposable culture?

AHe invented a type of bottle top which could not be reused.

BHe sold drinks in bottles which had to be thrown away.

CHe invented the disposable razor.

DHe refused to refill bottles when people returned them.

In what sense are fridges and TVs disposable?

AIt is not possible to recycle electric goods.

BThey are not worth repairing because the cost is too high.

CYou can buy disposable versions of them.

DThey are much cheaper than they used to be.

People often feel bad about throwing away electrical items because

Athey cost a lot of money to replace.

Bthey know they could easily find somebody to repair them.

Cthey feel they should be reducing the amount of rubbish they produce.

Dthey know that disposable items are just a fashion.

The situation with disposable goods is made worse by the fact that

A most people do not understand how electrical goods work.

B the number of electrical goods in the home is increasing.

C some electrical goods are faulty and get very hot when they’re plugged in.

D most electrical goods are made entirely of plastic.

If your bread-making machine breaks,

A you have no chance of finding anyone to fix it.

B you’ll have to replace it with a better one.

C you’ll insist on having it repaired, unless you’re quite eccentric.

D you have a chance of finding somebody to fix it, if you keep trying.

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