Columns

2012.08.08 Do they make recycling bins to hold pianos?

on . Posted in Nowhere Road

By RICH FOLEY

A few months ago, the computer that I used for 12 years to write this column was retired in favor of a newer model. The move into this millennium allows me to bring each new installment in on a flash drive instead of the floppy disks required before.

I had purchased four boxes of the diskettes several years ago at a clearance sale, figuring that it might be my last chance to find any new ones. Now, I had three sealed boxes left over and no idea what to do with them.

A co-worker predicted I’d never find a buyer, but last week, a business owner in Adrian took them off my hands. It was one of those rare occasions when both seller and buyer were happy. I sold them at a  small profit, and the buyer said my price was half of what he’d have to pay elsewhere. If only I could do that with the rest of my useless junk—wait, make that rare treasures—I wouldn’t have to worry about ending up on an episode of “Hoarders.”

At least computers themselves, no matter how obsolete they are, still have enough value remaining in some of their components to make it worthwhile for some organizations to take them in and dismantle them for the recyclable parts. That option seems to be over for televisions.

Goodwill Industries, the go-to place to disposal of your unwanted computer, no longer accepts donations of televisions, citing the expense of disposing of unsold donations. I’d be willing to guess that the switchover to digital television probably caused a big drop in used television sales, as it’s impossible to tell at a glance whether or not a used set is digital or will require an additional converter box or cable connection to make it useful.

At least you might have some luck giving away that old television to a friend or at a garage sale. Millions of one once-common household item are becoming a burden to their owners as they no longer have any value and the cost to dispose of them runs into the hundreds of dollars. Yes, I’m talking about the piano.

A recent New York Times article told of millions of pianos being sold from 1900 to 1930, the high water mark for American piano manufacturers. The best year was 1910, when 365,000 were purchased. The advent of radio cut into the need to have a piano for entertainment and sales have been dropping ever since.

Most pianos made in those days had a life span of 80 years or so, meaning there are now millions of worn-out pianos badly in need of expensive repair in homes, churches and schools.

Not only are these old pianos expensive to repair, lack of business has resulted in a deep decline in skilled piano technicians. What’s more, electronic digital pianos and portable keyboards can now be purchased for several hundred dollars or good quality imported pianos are available for under $3,000.

“Instead of spending hundreds or thousands to repair an old piano, you can buy a new one made in China that’s just as good, or you can buy a digital one that doesn’t need tuning and has all kinds of bells and whistles,” said Larry Fine of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer magazine. 

I’m not sure if Mr. Fine is related to the same-named member of The Three Stooges, but the article quoted 2011 sales figures from Music Trades magazine that show the marketplace is moving quickly toward substitutes for the traditional acoustic piano. Last year, sales of electronic keyboards were 1.1 million, followed by 120,000 digital pianos and a mere 41,000 acoustic models.

The upshot of this trend is a huge increase in the business of piano movers. Most charge $150 or more to pickup your no longer wanted piano. Most of the  movers hold on to them for a while, as any piano they can find a new home for could result in another moving fee.

Eventually, the movers have to reduce their inventory and haul some of the pianos no one has expressed interest in to a landfill. One landfill charges around $25 for each piano it takes in, then crushes them with a front-end loader. A recycling company picks out the wood and metal debris for future use.

This all sounds pretty sad, but one piano restorer made it sound almost natural. “You’ve buried your grandmother,” said Martha Taylor. “You have to bury her piano.”

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