The small levers that we use to flush our toilets may not seem very important, but when you need one their value is magnified. I have lived in many houses during my lifetime, and I do not recall breaking a toilet handle until I moved to Albany. During the three short years I’ve lived in my newly built home, I’ve had to replace two toilet handles.
I do not believe my wife and I are particularly aggressive toilet flushers. Like most people, I think we apply enough force to get the job done. The problem, therefore, must be with the quality of the handle itself. Close examination of the broken handles revealed that both gave way at a particular joint located inside the toilet tank. When the first handle broke, I wasn’t too surprised about its failure because the entire piece was made of plastic. I went to my favorite store and surveyed replacement options. Most toilet handles appear to be plastic, although I did find one metal handle with some plastic components attached. I was surprised to find that the metal handle was cheaper than the plastic one I was trying to replace. I had to repeat this process just before Thanksgiving, and this time I bought a spare metal replacement for the remaining toilet.
Well, so what? Life is short, and there are many more important things to worry about than toilet handles. The importance I attach to these little failures is that they are symptoms of a much larger problem. Earlier generations had the ability to produce toilet handles that would last a lifetime or longer. I would guess that one of the reasons toilet handles are now made in China is that someone figured out how to make a big market out of a little one. Replacing quality materials with crap (scientific term) that is slightly cheaper seems to be an increasingly successful strategy for gaining market share and making money. It seems to me that any discussion of sustainability must begin with this problem.
As a city, we are far from immune to this disease. Managers are always under pressure to reduce costs, and one of the easiest ways to do that (at least in the short-term) is to reduce quality. Just as my home builder may have saved some money by installing cheap toilet handles, the City could save money by always purchasing the cheapest software, vehicles, pipe, etc. The problem is that my builder saved himself money at my expense; and, if the City always opts for the cheapest goods, our savings would be at the public’s expense. I’m generally happy with my home, but I now routinely wonder what is going to fail next.
Sustainability, in my opinion, is not just a buzzword. It’s a concept we need to apply to purchases and practices in an effort to reduce true costs and assure quality service. Using this approach requires thinking beyond immediate needs and determining value based on quality as well as price.