We live in a throwaway society, one which creates vast amounts of waste while using up valuable resources for mass manufacturing. This can lead many to start reducing their waste on an individual level, in particular moving away from plastic, but did you know there are also vital community-run initiatives that can make a huge difference to our global waste problem?
Alongside Libraries of Things, which reduce consumption, there are also repair cafes, which help items last longer. Here’s why they’re vital to a sustainable future.
What is a Repair Cafe?
Repair cafes are free meeting places where people come together to fix things. Unofficial community repair groups have likely been around for a long time, but the model as we now know it was created by Martine Postma. Postma organised the very first repair cafe in Amsterdam in October 2009, which was a resounding success. She then founded the Repair Cafe Foundation in 2011, a non-profit providing professional support to local groups wanting to start repair cafes. There are now over 2000 repair cafes in over 35 countries around the world.
In a repair cafe you can usually find tools and materials needed to fix items such as electrics, clothes, bikes, furniture, and more. You can also find expert volunteers, with repair skills in different areas, to help you. Most repair cafes also teach essential mending skills such as sewing buttons, fixing zips, and wiring plugs, helping people learn something by watching and working with volunteers.
Repair cafes focus on making things last, saving people money and helping the environment by reducing consumption, manufacture, and use of raw materials.
How it works
Repair cafes can meet in any kind of community space such as cafes, libraries, churches, or community centres. Volunteers often bring their own tools, but some groups also have their own tool collections funded by donations. You don’t need an appointment, just bring your broken item from home (so you will need to be able to transport it) and drop in to find a volunteer to help you. In some cafes fixers may be separated into stations for different types of repairs, eg. clothing or electronics, and at others volunteers will guide you to the right fixer for your item.
Once matched with a fixer, you either watch as they work to fix your item, or you may work together to make repairs. Either way, they’ll usually talk you through the process so you learn fixing skills. If you have nothing to repair you can grab refreshments, lend a hand on someone else’s repair, or learn about repairs and DIY from others there.
There’s no guarantee that the fixers will be able to solve your problem, but they succeed more often than not. For example, Repair Café Palo Alto says its volunteers manage to fix about 70% of the items people bring in.
Repair cafes often have a stock of items needed to make repairs, such as wires or thread, but some items may need a specific part that volunteers don’t have. In this case fixers can let you know where to source the part and you can come back to complete the repair. Additionally, if you have a broken item that’s too big to bring to a repair cafe, you may be able to describe the issue to a volunteer who can advise on how to fix it.
Why Repair Cafes?
In the Global North people throw away huge amounts of stuff. Some items may be almost perfect, able to be brought back to life with a simple repair. Unfortunately, many don’t have the knowledge, skills or finances to get things repaired or do it themselves. This is where repair cafes come in: passing on invaluable practical skills, making repair more accessible, promoting the circular economy, and keeping items in use.
A localised repair movement directly challenges mass consumption and individualism. Instead of a linear model based on extracting resources, using them a few times and then throwing things away, repair promotes the circular economy in tangible, community-centred ways.
All of this becomes even more important when we consider the numbers. Wrap estimates the average lifespan of an item of clothing in the UK at 3.3 years, with 300,000 tonnes of clothing waste sent to landfill in 2016 alone. The amount of e-waste doesn’t fare much better, with estimates expecting it to reach 52.2 million metric tonnes by 2021.
A 2015 study found that between 2004 and 2012, the number of household appliances that died within five years doubled from 3.5% to 8.3%. When it comes to large household appliances, the situation is even worse, with the proportion being replaced within 5 years increasing from 7% in 2004 to 13% in 2013. An analysis of junked washing machines at a recycling centre showed that more than 10% were less than five years old.
We need to change individual perspectives, and we need to change the wider culture around waste. Some of this throwaway attitude can be attributed to too much consumption, with people moving on to the newest trends extremely rapidly. However, there is also the issue of planned obsolescence, when manufacturers purposefully design products to break down whilst making them difficult to fix, encouraging people to buy new instead. On a planet with finite resources, resisting both of these things is key to protecting the environment.
Repair cafe volunteer Stuart Ward says that when fixing items is actively discouraged by manufacturers, repair becomes a political act. He is vehement about the “right to repair”, a movement opposed to the practices of companies like the machinery company John Deere, which, under copyright laws, doesn’t allow people to fix their own equipment or take them to independent repairers.
Repair cafes simultaneously challenge planned obsolescence, reduce waste, and promote sustainable, community-focused lifestyles. A global survey of repair cafes found that three in five items are successfully repaired. Not only does this save perfectly good items from landfills, but it also lowers emissions that would be produced from recycling/waste disposal and in sourcing raw materials and manufacturing of the replacement item someone would buy.
Plus, repair cafes make mending more fun and more viable, helping people explore more long-term sustainable behaviours in collaboration with others and the local community (many repair cafes have relationships with local Libraries of Things, for example!)
A vacuum cleaner, a hair straightener, a laptop, Christmas lights, an e-reader, a blender, a kettle, two bags, a pair of jeans, a remote-control helicopter, a spoon, a dining-room chair, a lamp and hair clippers. All broken.
It sounds like a pile of things that you’d stick in boxes and take to the tip. In fact, it’s a list of things mended in a single afternoon by British volunteers determined to get people to stop throwing stuff away.
…Today, the repairers will divert 24kg of waste from going to landfill and save 284kg of CO2. Some items can’t be fixed on the spot – notably a hunting horn split in two, which requires soldering with a blow torch – but very little needs to be thrown away.
Repair cafes are usually free, with the option to make a small donation. This helps make repairs accessible for those who couldn’t afford to pay a professional fixer, and saves the cost of buying a completely new item.
Repair cafes encourage people to work together, share knowledge, and learn from one another. This helps people get to know their neighbours, practice teamwork, and build relationships from a place of reciprocity and trust. If you have useful skills it’s also a place to put them to use helping others.
The set-up and collaborative approach worked as a bonding mechanism for like-minded repairers and helped people integrate into the community if they were new to the area. It also worked as a bridging mechanism, reaching across sub-communities and building social cohesion. In Moss Side, for example, diverse cohorts such as the student population and the local Afro-Caribbean population, who might not otherwise interact, came together at this community event. These forms of interaction and collaboration are key to tackling deprivation, as they help build collective intelligence and resilience…
The unique community links of repair cafés means they can play a role in tackling deprivation beyond the repair café. In Levenshulme, the repair café donated its saved contributions to Levinspire (the community space that hosts it) during the first Covid-19 lockdown, highlighting the value of intra-community links. Equally, repairers at the Moss Side repair café help out at other community events run by Sow the City, becoming part of a ‘social scaffolding’ of community work. The fact these events are all free of charge opens new opportunities for those who might otherwise be unable to afford to go to them.
Repair cafes are fun! People often don’t realise the satisfaction that mending can bring, just from figuring out a problem and finding the solution. It can be a real confidence boost to see something working again and knowing that you made it happen, as well as potentially helping with eco-anxiety by focusing on practical things within out control.
The repair cafés become an informal learning space, especially useful in a time where skillsets are dying out and people are unable to easily access the repair services they might need. The focus of repair cafés on positive, practical and communal action draws newfound joy from landfill-destined junk. The quietly radical work of individuals enthusiastically plugging away at a global problem, by pulling things apart and piecing them back together again, offers a different way to do things, and the opportunity to engage in a positive approach to change.
Join a repair cafe
With over 2000 around the world, you can find your local repair cafe here to drop into next time you need something fixed, or to become a volunteer and put some skills to good use.
Plus, you can start one yourself! You can find a starter pack with a manual covering the most important things you need to get started including finding fixers, locations, tools and funding, while also helping with additional support.
Plus, learn more about the Right to Repair campaign here, which targets planned obsolescence around the world.