Fix and mend more than stuff
Repair Cafés are a worldwide alternative to throwaway culture
By Susanne Janssen
Have you ever had a beloved item with many memories that suddenly broke?
Or did you get mad because the toaster doesn’t work anymore after only two years of service? Maybe it’s only a small contact that needs cleaning, but since the item wasn’t expensive, the repair would cost much more than buying a new gadget. If you’re not a handyman or happen to know someone who can fix everything, you have to throw the toaster away and contribute your share to the growing landfill.
Many people are not happy with this “toss and buy it new” practice, which brings about waste of energy, plastic, and other raw materials. That’s the main idea behind the Repair Café, where people come together and help each other fix and mend.
“To transform our throw-away economy, one beloved item at a time,” reads the café motto. At the Gardiner Public Library in the Hudson Valley, two hours north of New York City and home to one Repair Café, people stand in line despite the sign that says the heating isn’t working today. A warm jacket and some hot coffee will do it.
Eight “repair coaches” are ready to assist the visitors. “The main idea is to teach people how to fix things and repair it together,” says Wendy Toman, who started the Gardiner Repair Café three years ago. “It brings the community together and is not just a service where you can get your things repaired.”
What unifies the experts, organizers and visitors is the wish to reduce how much stuff goes into the waste stream, fostering community and sustainability.
Toman heard about the idea of bringing people together to fix broken things at the nearby town of New Paltz. Working at that time as a recycling director, she was immediately taken by this idea, because it combined two important things.
“It was not only about keeping things that are still worth fixing, but also to preserve traditional repair know-how and skills,” she said. Very often, people who have this knowledge are not valued anymore, since you can easily buy a new toaster or lamp for just a few dollars.
On this Sunday afternoon, a toaster gets back to work, and a lady learns how to make her lamp shine again. Two repair coaches take care of an old clock, a difficult case that sparks their determination. A school teacher is happy that her electric pencil sharpener works again.
At the last table, the “take-apart corner,” two kids have fun with an old CD player, using the former speaker covers as masks. “The children love to see how things work, and here they can explore the insides of an item,” says Toman. It helps them to connect what they learn at school — how electricity passes through a cable, contacts and so on. “Later they will remember it when they turn on a switch.”
Feeding curiosity about “the way things work” is part of the mission of the Repair Café too.
Ken Boscher’s everyday job is fixing things, however, he also volunteers at several Repair Cafés. “I want to give people who cannot afford to pay me $40 per hour the chance to fix their things,” he says. Usually, people who have a sentimental connection with a lamp from grandma or a piece of jewelry are willing to pay, but not everyone is able to. He also likes to teach others the value of fixing and keeping things as an antidote to our throwaway culture.
The Repair Café idea was born in Amsterdam in 2009. Martine Postma wanted to bring together the knowledge of people who knew how to fix almost everything with people reluctant to throw away broken items. When people were enthusiastic about the idea and wanted to start a Repair Café in their city, Postma started a foundation in 2011 that provides help for those who want to start something in their region.
The idea was brought to New Paltz, New York, by John Wackman in 2013. His dedication, enthusiasm and success inspired others to launch Repair Café events in their communities. There are now seven other Repair Cafés in the Hudson Valley, and others in California, Nebraska, Illinois, Washington, Canada, India, Australia and South Korea. The starter kit was just recently translated into Japanese, and the first Repair Café in sub-Saharan Africa has opened.
In many corners of the world, lots of people have forgotten that they can repair things themselves, and the trend is spreading. Practical knowledge is considered by many to be less important than academics, and in many countries teaching these skills is no longer part of the school curriculum. As a consequence, people who have skills are less sought after and asked for help.
Repair Cafés are trying to change that by bringing the community together and helping people appreciate the value of the objects they possess. This reduces the volume of raw materials and energy needed to make new products. It cuts CO2 emissions, for example, because manufacturing new products and recycling old ones causes CO2 to be released.
This type of sustainable society should be also fun in the getting together, for chatting over a cup of coffee and some baked goodies, mending not only broken items but relationships, too.
More about the Hudson Valley Repair Cafés at repaircafehv.org. International website with information about how to start a Repair Café: repaircafe.org/en.
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