A man, carrying a broken a toaster under his arm, walks through a community gathering where small clusters of people have formed next to individual workstations. Each table he passes is covered in an assortment of tools that are being delicately handled by the volunteer who sits behind them. The man suddenly halts and, gesturing to the bottom of his trousers, boasts to the girl at one desk that he has altered them himself. The girl beams with pride on seeing the perfectly straight hem; after all, she was the one who showed him how to do it.
These exchanges are not uncommon when visiting repair cafes, where people can go to have their items repaired, at no cost, by volunteers who just enjoy fixing things. The trend was kick-started in Amsterdam six years ago, when loose acquaintances and strangers met to fix broken appliances in the rented room of a former hotel. The converging of shared learning and community spirit sparked the innate interest of the media and nearby foundations, leading to the subsequent 950 repair cafes that are currently active worldwide.
‘My very first repair was a hardly-used electric lawnmower. Other volunteers gathered around eagerly and helped disassemble the gleaming machine to find a snapped drive belt,’ attendee Steve Privett recalls. ‘I thought to myself; it’s always good to save a life, even of a lawnmower’s!’
Repair cafes are part of a movement towards proactive sustainable living, where the individuals have the skills and knowledge to avoid wasteful disposals and increase product longevity. Similar community-based trends, like Hackerspaces, are also quickly emerging.
Hackerspaces are scheduled meetups that bring people together to learn everyday skills, such software development, coding and making electronic devices. Their popularity stems from this same quest to have more control over the lifespan of what we purchase and thrown away.
In the UK, repair cafes are becoming increasing popular, with 18 venues already hosting these events on a regular basis. Here, volunteers pool together their own expertise and offer hours at a time to mend kitchen appliances, clothing, lighting, DVD players, printers, electric tools, and even bicycles or clothing racks. While the volunteers work, they take the time to educate the onlooker about what they can do to repair other faulty items.
‘What I really enjoy is hearing the stories about why the visitor wishes to prolong the life of their items,’ says Pippa Ward, who volunteers at a repair cafe in Farnham. ‘Often a good “yarn” accompanies the repair, to explain why the item is so treasured.’
Volunteers like Pippa donate their time because they are motivated to help others live more sustainably and to provide a valuable service to the community. For them it is all about empowering individuals who feel uncomfortable with basic DIY lifehacks, such as retirees or young students who are living on a shoestring budget, and eager to take these repair into their own hands. To them, the ability to revive an expired electrical device or sew a hem is a form of independence.
It is this positive response that is changing perceptions of repaired or recycled items, thereby reducing the amount of aged products that would otherwise end up in landfill sites.
One attendee proudly displays her cordless iron, victoriously explaining that she partnered with a volunteer to creatively fix the broken clip, by splitting the undamaged one in half to make new ones. Say says, ‘Hey-presto, we had a lovely elegant solution to a very irritating problem that was messing up my otherwise trouble-free ironing sessions.’
The attendees of these events, who leave with better-fitted clothing or a repaired favourite necklace, zestfully wave to the volunteers who have generously helped them. These newly repaired items will now find their place back in their home, serving as a reminder that if a similar repair is needed, their proud owners now have the know-how to fix it themselves.
Success story: the Farnham Repair Café
The Farnham Repair Café (FRC) offers a monthly ‘Place and Space’ for Farnham’s citizens to come and get products fixed and to ‘share in the repair’. FRC was launched in February 2015 and, as at January 2016, 11 sessions have been organised with 433 attendees. To date 178 products have been brought to FRC and 104 have been fixed at repair stations covering electrical/electronics, mechanicals, bicycles, textiles (e.g. clothing/apparel) and furniture representing a 58% repair rate and 388 kg of material diverted from landfill.
Farnham Repair Café (FRC) is a non-profit organisation that is based on a strategic collaboration between The Centre for Sustainable Design® headed by Professor Martin Charter at the University of the Creative Arts, and Transition Town Farnham. FRC utilises CfSD’s experience of organising and developing a range of innovative sustainability projects over 20 years and TTF’s local Farnham networks related to food, hops, cinema and cycling. FRC is funded through donations at events and ad hoc grants.