Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
This series of workshops aims to keep broken items out of the landfill, and it might help you save a few bucks, too.
Charlie Goedeke carefully examined the fabric shaver I’d placed in front of him. The motor had stopped working, or so I assumed. Using a voltage tester, he checked to make sure the batteries inside weren’t dead—they weren’t. “Now the question is, how do we take this apart?” he said. I told him that’s where my colleague, who had entrusted me with the item, struggled when she tried to fix it.
“They don’t make it easy,” he replied.
We were at a “repair cafe” inside the Elkridge Library in Howard County, Maryland. Instead of silence, we were surrounded by the buzzing of power drills and the whirring of sewing machines. Goedeke was one of the “master fixers” there. He doesn’t like the term, though; he says it should be reserved for the professionals. “We’re all just amateurs at this, and we’re just having fun, mostly,” the 67-year-old retired engineer said.
Around the room, 10 others were helping residents repair everything from tables and lamps to jewelry and clothing. In one corner, a handful of vacuums had begun to accumulate. These were things people normally threw away when they malfunction. “[Our society] has been inculcated in the last 50 years with this disposable concept and to buy the best and the latest,” Goedeke said. “We just don’t expect to keeps things around.”
It’s that throwaway culture that former sustainability journalist Martine Postma—now the founder of the Repair Cafe Foundation—aimed to tackle in October 2009 when she created the first of such cafes in Amsterdam. The world had been chucking away some 20 million to 50 million tons of electronic waste a year, according to the UN, creating environmental and health problems when dump sites are burned. Meanwhile the U.S. alone had generated almost 25 billion pounds of textile waste that year.
“It’s not just electronics and textile; also furniture and bicycles and toys—lots of stuff,” Postma said, speaking from her office in Amsterdam. “At the time, the garbage was collected once a week, and every week there were mountains of waste outside, so much that it really shocked me.”
That amount of waste continues to grow today, but so has Postma’s movement. From that first cafe in Amsterdam grew nearly 1,600 more across the globe, including 82 within the U.S. The international attention came swiftly, she said, with like-minded environmentalists asking to set up coffee meetings with her to learn how to get started. She now sells a digital starter kit for €49 (about $58) that includes a manual, permission to use the foundation’s official logo, and communication access to all the other cafes out there.
What she’s discovered was that it wasn’t that people liked throwing away old stuff. “Often when they don’t know how to repair something, they replace it, but they keep the old one in the cupboard—out of guilt,” she said. “Then at a certain moment, the cupboard is full and you decide this has been lying around [long enough].”
That’s why the cafes teach people how to repair their belongings, rather than doing it for them. Back at Elkridge Library, Goedeke led a session on how to rewire lamps, taking one apart and showing the audience the individual components. Each time the fixers worked on something, they explained the process to the person across the table.
With the fabric shaver I’d brought in, the plastic safety switch had apparently broken, preventing the metal parts that carry electricity to the motor from touching. “What we can do is solder this piece together,” he said, showing me the metal plates. That meant getting rid of the plastic safety switch. I gave him the OK, and in minutes, the shaver began humming again.
Goedeke is usually the “catch-all guy,” fixing electrical appliances that don’t fall into the various stations the organizers had set up: sewing, woodwork, jewelry repair, et cetera. Some things are easier than others: Vacuums are among the most common and easiest to fix. Clocks can be surprisingly tricky.
For him, though, the focus isn’t so much on the appliances as it is on interacting with his community. “I have to be honest, when you go telling people you want to save the world, they often say, ‘That sounds nice, but I don’t have the time,’” he said. “But if there is this aspect of, ‘Do you want your toaster fixed, and while you’re having that done, can we talk about saving the world?’ they tend to be more receptive.”
Each cafe operates differently, but Postma says one thing often stays the same: “The atmosphere is always the same,” she said. “It’s always many funny products and happy people.”
The event attracted an older crowd—as many of these do—which meant 21-year-old Andrew Hendren stood out as he watched one volunteer work on his table lamp. The switch broke, he said, so the lamp could only be turned on and off by plugging and unplugging the cord. He had never heard of repair cafes until the day before, and generally wasn’t the kind of person to fix things himself. But he was well aware of how often people throw things away.
“It is such a shame that we are such a throwaway culture,” he told CityLab. “[The volunteer] who was helping me noted that the mechanism isn’t designed to be taken apart and repaired. It’s designed to make you frustrated.”
Postma said the movement has made great progress over the last decade, but acknowledged that more can be done. Attracting younger people would be a good start goal. She wants schools to add—or rather, bring back—technical education. In the U.S., at least, those hands-on classes have been on the decline since the 1980s.
Goedeke himself grew up with woodwork classes, and learned to fix things by taking objects apart and tinkering with what’s inside. These days, though, it’s a bit more challenging, with products using more computerized technology and manufacturers using parts that can’t easily be disassembled. Just recently, he tried to fix his coffee grinder.
“Once I got inside, I discovered that [the manufacturers] had used anti-tamper screws,” he said. “So even if you could figure out how to go through the first layer, you couldn’t get to the motor unless you had a very specific screwdriver.” Other companies make it difficult to buy replacement parts or discourage third-party and self repairs—practices, known as planned obsolescence, that have spurred at least 18 states to introduce “right to repair” legislation.
The foundation, meanwhile, is starting to collect data on what people bring in and what challenges the fixers face, for example, to use as evidence to eventually spur policy changes on the local level, if not the national and international level.
For the time being, communities are doing what they can to encourage people to fix things. Libraries like the one in Howard County, for example, have started renting out tools and creating “makerspaces” where members learn to both repair and create. Elsewhere, cities have hosted MakerLabs, FabLabs—short for fabrication lab—and Innovation Labs for both adults and children. Bike shops and nonprofits alike have fished scrapped vehicles from the landfill to repair and donate to the underserved community. And similar to the Repair Cafe Foundation, a London startup called The Restart Project are encouraging communities to host “restart parties” with the goal of “fixing our relationship with electronics.”
After all, Goedeke said, it doesn’t take an engineer to figure out this stuff out: “You just have to have the curiosity and will to do things like that.”
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the amount of textile waste in the U.S. in 2009. It was 25 billion pounds, not 25 billion tons.