Every year, millions of people throw away countless items because they don’t know how to fix them. Some products are manufactured in a way that makes it hard, if not impossible, for people to repair them themselves. This throwaway lifestyle depletes Earth’s resources and adds to overflowing landfills. Now there’s a better way. Repair Revolution chronicles the rise of Repair Cafes, Fixit Clinics, and other volunteer-run organizations devoted to helping consumers repair their beloved but broken items for free. Repair Revolution explores the philosophy and wisdom of repairing, as well as the Right to Repair movement. It provides inspiration and instructions for starting, staffing, and sustaining your own repair events. “Fixperts” share their favorite online repair resources, as well as tips and step-by-step instructions for how to make your own repairs. Ultimately, Repair Revolution is about more than fixing material objects: in an age of over-consumption and planned obsolescence, do-it-yourself repair is a way of caring for our lives, our communities, and our planet.
We hope you will enjoy this excerpt from Repair Revolution: How Fixers are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture.
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Used to be, every town had its repair shops. Everyone knew where to go when they needed something fixed. That know-how was often close at hand, practiced by parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, or a local “fix-it man.” We can call this a remnant of the Great Depression, of course, but its roots stretch back to Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard and the tradition of Yankee thrift.
How has our society changed? The immediate answer, almost always, is that we no longer get things repaired because ours has become a throwaway culture. The economic explanation for this is that since World War II, the world has embraced the materials economy, that is to say, a wasteful, rather than regenerative, use of precious resources. As the axiom coined by Twitter cofounder Evan Williams puts it, “Convenience decides everything.” The argument can’t be made that this is sustainable.
But if there is a Repair Cafe or Fixit Clinic or Tool Library in your town, you have a different answer. The place to get something fixed is at the library or a church or your town hall or community center. The concept couldn’t be simpler: whatever you call it, wherever it is held, a community repair event invites you to bring a beloved but broken item to be repaired for free, by an expert who is also your neighbor.
There’s one catch. This is not a drop-off service. You bring your item and stay with it during the repair process. You sit down and describe what it’s not doing that it’s supposed to be doing, when it stopped working, and where you think the defect might be. This is not a monetary transaction — it’s an interpersonal transaction.
The consumer economy is powerful. The growing repair culture is a countervailing force: community initiatives that are creative, socially vibrant platforms for building awareness about the larger challenges facing our planet.
There is something about the act of repairing that motivates and satisfies deeply felt parts of our nature. We can trace this insight back to Aristotle: one of the greatest sources of human enjoyment is being able to enact one’s knowledge, to share what you know. The act of repairing involves “troubleshooting,” which to many people is an irresistible proposition.
Repairing in Community Is Powerful
All over the world, people are pooling their resources, sharing information, and learning how to be more than just consumers. They are learning to be fixers. And they are starting to fix their world.
— Northeast Recycling Council
Repair culture is about these things: Extending the life of stuff that you care about or rely on. Feeding your curiosity about the way things work. Using tools and using your hands. Honoring, preserving, and passing on repair know-how. Sitting elbow-to-elbow at a worktable with your neighbor. Sharing skills. Reducing waste. Making friends.
You might think that the most common comment people offer about their experience at a repair event is something like “I’m so glad they fixed it” or “It was free.” But the words people use more than any other, hands down, to describe their Repair Cafe experience are “It was fun.”
Almost every item people bring has meaning to them. Every item comes with a story. Laughter and tears are common. Some of the comments our customers leave are straightforward description: “Pants mended.” “Clock fixed.” “Toddler bike now roadworthy.” “$200 printer back in service after the company said, ‘Buy a new one.’” Others are more effusive: “I can’t begin to tell you what an absolutely lovely and wonderful experience this has been.” “There is a strong beam of hope and light coming from this space.”
Every repair event is locally organized. Partners include libraries, congregations, town boards, environmental and conservation groups, Rotary Clubs, climate activists, and at least one County Emergency Communications Association. Librarians say they love repair events because they offer hands-on, intergenerational learning. Faith communities embrace the theological aspect: this is caring for creation. County waste management or resource recovery agencies recognize the value of any grassroots initiative that will help slow down the pace of waste reaching their landfills. Clubs from technical colleges and school districts bring their team spirit, and high school and college students commonly volunteer to get community service credit. Not surprisingly, the kids often end up behind the digital worktable — or with their hands on a sewing machine, some for the first time.
When journalist Harry Smith brought the NBC Nightly News crew to our Repair Cafe in New Paltz, New York, he beautifully interpreted what he found: “The idea is exquisitely simple: neighbor helping neighbor. They fix a lot of stuff. Things left in attics and garages. Things that just stopped working. And what we marveled at was the care, the meticulous, painstaking care that goes into every repair.”
Why We Do It
- To transform our throwaway culture, one beloved item at a time
- To reduce how much stuff goes into the waste stream
- To preserve repair know-how and skills, and pass them on (re-skilling!)
- To show the people who have this knowledge that they are valued
- To feed our curiosity about the way things work, be creative, and have fun!
- To build community resilience
By 2009, Amsterdam journalist Martine Postma had reported extensively on sustainability and the plight of our planet. She hoped that her stories had helped change minds and attitudes, but after the birth of her second child, she wanted to do something more. “In Europe, we throw out so many things,” she reflected in a 2012 interview with the New York Times. “It’s a shame, because the things we throw away are usually not that broken. There are more and more people in the world, and we can’t keep handling things the way we do. But how do you try to do this as a normal person in your daily life?”
Inspired by a local design exhibition that focused on repair and creative reuse, Martine organized the world’s first Repair Cafe in the lobby of a movie theatre. “Sustainability discussions are often about ideals, about what could be,” Martine said. “This is very hands on, very concrete. It’s about doing something together, in the here and now. Repair Cafes attract people who are not at the center of attention in everyday society, but here they become heroes.”
The Netherlands was the perfect place for this idea to take hold. In a small country, long focused on beating back the sea and reclaiming the land, the deeply rooted historical mindset is very much about how to live within limits. Yet make no mistake, prosperity has allowed for plenty of consumer buying by the broad middle class. As Martine says, the Netherlands is no less a throwaway culture than the United States.
The idea caught on almost immediately. The media loved it. Within a year, each of Holland’s thirteen provinces had started one or more Repair Cafes. The Dutch Ministry of the Environment decided to fund the creation of a Repair Café Foundation. From there the concept jumped borders and cultures quickly.
The idea is eminently replicable. The first Repair Cafe in the United States popped up in October 2012 in Palo Alto, California (in Silicon Valley — surprise!). In rapid succession, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Pasadena, California, followed. Our Repair Cafe in New Paltz, New York, was close behind, the fourth to open within six months. In each of those towns, someone had read that interview with Martine Postma the previous May, reporting on what was then a strictly European phenomenon: “An Effort to Bury a Throwaway Culture One Repair at a Time.”
As of this writing, there are more than 150 Repair Cafes in the United States. The largest concentration is in the Northeast, with fifty or so in eastern New York and northern New Jersey and another fifty in Massachusetts and the other New England states. The upper Midwest and the West Coast are the next most “repairing” regions. Sprinkled around the country, you will find regular events in Colorado, Ohio, and the D.C. and Philly areas, plus outposts in Fairbanks, Alaska; Honolulu, Hawaii; Lincoln, Nebraska; Ellensburg, Washington; Moscow, Idaho; Houston, Texas; the Research Triangle of North Carolina; and St. Petersburg, Florida — with wide open spaces in between.
In one relatively small region — the Hudson Valley, Catskills, and Capital District of New York State — we saw more than 120 events in 2019, in forty communities in twelve counties. These events involved the time of more than six hundred volunteers who brought everything from advanced electronics skills to the wherewithal to make a mean cup of tea. The very social “cafe” side of each event thrives on home-baked treats, fruit, coffee, and tea.
This book will explore the reasons for all this growth, the extraordinary appeal of the idea, and why we believe it can — and should — be replicated in some way everywhere.
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John Wackman is coauthor of Repair Revolution. He is a TV producer and writer, and he founded the first Repair Café in New York. He lives in Kingston, New York.
Elizabeth Knight is coauthor of Repair Revolution, and is the author of Welcome Home and other books. She is a community sustainability activist and organizer and she lives in Warwick, New York.
Find out more about both authors’ work at http://www.repaircafeusa.org.
Excerpted from the book Repair Revolution. Copyright ©2020 by John Wackman and Elizabeth Knight.