In Sweden you get a tax deduction for fixing the TV instead of throwing it out. Victoria now has 25 repair cafes and there are more springing up around the country. Be warned – this subversive movement is sweeping Australia, fighting waste, excess consumerism and built-in obsolescence.
It appears many of us are tired of having to chuck stuff out just because one wee widget broke on it or the zipper stopped working. Community-driven repair cafes are now popping up around the country, fix-it forums and workshops are booming, and advocacy is growing for Australia to follow Europe’s lead and adopt legislation that aims to make products fixable as a basic principle.
The sustainability argument is obvious – whatever we keep using is always going to be more sustainable than buying a new thing, even if the old thing gets recycled.
As founder of Victoria’s longest running repair café at Albury-Wodonga, Lizette Salmon explains, every item has an “ecological rucksack” attached to it.
According to a report by Friends of the Earth Denmark the materials impact or ecological rucksack associated with common products is the total impact from materials extraction and processing, through to manufacture, distribution and sales of any product.
Salmon says a toothbrush for example, has a 1.5 kilogram ecological rucksack. A mobile phone carries 15kg.
“On average, the ecological rucksack is 30 times the weight of the product.”
The Repair Café she started in November 2015 has already saved the equivalent of a 90-tonne loaded semi-trailer’s worth of ecological rucksacks in terms of objects saved from landfill because they’ve been fixed instead.
How the repair café works
The initiative brings together up to 20 volunteer repairers with skills across furniture, sewing, cycle repairs, battery-operated appliances, tool maintenance and IT. While some of the volunteers are retired, many have day jobs, some hold PhDs and all try to pass on some skills to the owners of the objects being repaired.
Around 85 per cent of goods brought into café sessions get repaired, Salmon says. Last month the highest-ever number of goods were fixed, 105 items, ranging from pot lids and jewellery to soft toys and clocks. Repairs are free, although donations are encouraged to cover operating costs including supplies of solder for soldering irons, iron-on patches for textile repairs and insurance for the organisation.
The largest thing repaired to date has been a kayak. Some of the smallest items include Lego toys or jewellery. Clothing, timber furniture and battery-operated toys are common.
Salmon says there are sometimes cheap items brought in that can’t be fixed, and the message of that is – next time it might be worth spending a little more to get an item of better quality that’s repairable.
Making planned obsolescence obsolete
In general there is a growing desire to keep items working longer, and a frustration with planned obsolescence.
This devious marketing strategy involves manufacturers wilfully designing things to break or wear out relatively quickly so the owner then needs to buy another one. It’s a way of retaining customers, supposedly, but it’s no longer seen as good business.
In France, it is now a crime attracting up to two years jail for directors of companies that deliberately design products to have a reduced lifespan. It’s also an approach that has garnered bad press for some of the big IT and communications technology firms who have been accused of ensuring short battery lives and lack of authorised replacement parts to keep the cycle of consumption going.
Many consumer product warranties also contain clauses that state the warranty will be voided if the consumer chooses to attempt to repair the item or uses anyone but an authorised repairer. It’s worth noting that while the warranties might state this, the ACCC has advised consumers still have rights to get items repaired.
In the USA, the Repair Association and the US Public Interest Research Group Right to Repair campaign are among those working hard to fix the system that makes it hard to fix our stuff.
“For hundreds of years, Americans have been buying and selling products without worrying if they had the ability to tinker with, repair, and reuse those products. But more and more common goods now come with restrictions on your ability to do all that — or even hire someone you trust to do it for you. Some products even come with contracts and mandatory licences that interfere with your right to resell your product,” the Repair Association states.
“A free, independent market for repair and reuse is more efficient, more competitive, and better for consumers. Repair helps create local jobs, and repair and reuse benefits the environment by reducing end-of-life electronic products. The freedom to maintain, innovate, and improve upon our products is imperative. These basic freedoms are essential to American economic growth and creativity, and must be preserved for the 21st century.”
Time for Australia to fix the policies
A similar discussion is gathering volume here in Australia. E-Waste in particular, with its “black box” goods that defy the average user’s tinkering confidence and are prone to a vast number of malfunctions, from broken screens and buggered batteries to mysterious viruses and software glitches, is a sector ripe for fixing.
In an article published by Inside Waste this week, EWaste Watch Institute co-founder and director, John Gertsakis, highlights the importance of designing products for long lives and for repairability as crucial to genuine circular economy thinking.
Recycling at end-of-life where that life was a short one is not a sustainability win compared to having a product that has a very long life and can be repaired.
“Consumption is the elephant in the room and that means we need smarter policies and targeted investment to encourage higher levels of reuse, repair, dematerialisation and the sharing economy,” Gertsakis told The Fifth Estate.
The transition to a circular economy needs a system-wide adjustment that designs out waste and pollution while maximising the longevity of products and materials, he says
But there needs to be more push from the top – Canberra – for this.
“While recycling must continue we need a more effective balance of investment, market development and intelligent regulation that rewards and enables reuse and repair.
“Repair cafés, tool libraries and product leasing are obvious solutions however governments are yet to fully understand the social, economic and environmental value of product life extension and circular design alternatives.”
Gertsakis says new assistant minister for waste reduction, Trevor Evans, is well placed to support consumer appetite for reuse and repair through innovative policies and programs, especially where they make use of existing policy tools such as the Product Stewardship Act and procurement guidelines.
Kindness to planet – and between people – hot trend alert
Meanwhile, the community is increasingly getting on with it. Salmon says there are now 25 repair cafes in Victoria, and more springing up around the country.
The whole idea started in the Netherlands in 2009 before spreading globally. She points out that just as Europe is ahead of Australia on climate policy, it is also ahead on waste.
In Sweden money an individual spends on repairing something like a TV is tax-deductible from personal income tax
In Sweden, for example, money an individual spends on repairing something like a TV is tax-deductible from personal income tax. The EU also recently passed laws that mean products including lighting, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges will need to be designed for repairability and longer useful lives from April 2021.
Salmon says the interest in repair is obvious not only from the number of options for doing it, but also from the 1.5 million views of a recent 7.30 Report story on Repair Cafes.
It can also be seen in the expansion of organisations such as environmental charity, The Bower headquartered in Marrickville, which offers repairs, rehoming and resources for prolonging the life of consumer goods. It recently opened a new shopfront in Parramatta and has built up a significant network of alliances with charities, second-hand dealers, upcylers and recyclers.
Beyond the environmental good of the repair process, Salmon also sees a social good.
“Each repair transaction is an act of kindness between two strangers.”
Happiness peaked in the 1970s, when we had less stuff and smaller homes
She also questions whether the rampant consumerism of recent decades has made us any happier.
“Happiness actually peaked in the 1970s, when we had less stuff and smaller homes… we think we are improving the quality of our lives [with more stuff], but we are not.”
She says there are a few ways anyone can reduce their footprint from consumer goods: rethink all purchases; refuse new stuff; and reduce, re-use, repair and recycle – in that order. Recycling should be the final option – not the first or second.
Patrick Hocking provides IT repairs and advice at Woodend Neighbourhood House, and also volunteers at the monthly Repair Café, which operates in conjunction with the town’s farmers’ market.
He says the main items brought in are clothing, leather goods, furniture, vacuum cleaners and electronics such as phones, watches and iPads. Community groups such as the local Men’s Shed and local specialists such as furniture repairers supply the fixing assistance.
“In Woodend, people tend to want to re-use and recycle,” he says.
In some cases, fixing an existing thing is not just about environmental benefits, there is also a reluctance to learn how to use a new one.
“When it does get fixed, people are so grateful.”
Someone might bring in a watch that has been handed down from their father or grandfather and has been in a drawer for years – and the delight when it is fixed is obvious.
When it comes to IT repairs, Hocking says a big part of the process is “demystifying the technology.”
That means showing people how to replace a hard-drive or clean up a computer.
“I show them it’s not a magic box, it’s really easy.”
Another part of the process is showing people how to do it themselves.
The region around Woodend has a community where self-reliance is of growing importance, from gardening through to DIY skills, Hocking says. It also has a strong sense of sharing between community members to create common ground.
Another example of enterprises bringing together community, repair and sustainability is Phil Wilkinson’s Wilkinson’s Wheels cycle repair initiative. He says he is currently looking at how it can be scaled up for any community to adopt it – read the story he wrote about it here
Get radical – get repairing!
According to clothing manufacturer Patagonia, which pioneered a repair guarantee and repair service for its clothing, “repair is a radical act”. The movement has even inspired a new word – to “MacGyver”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to MacGyver is to make or repair a thing in an inventive way.
Here are seven ways you can get MacGyvering and fight the baddies of product obsolescence and waste to landfill:
- Find a Repair Café near you, or start one – visit Repair Café Australia for details.
- Check out Junk Map and find recycled and reclaimed materials and loads of inspiration for repairing or renovating your home
- Learn how to fix one of the most common household wasting water woes, a leaky tap, here
- Be inspired by the travelling tinkering of Danny and Karen Ellis, AKA Mend It, Australia!
- If you are designing a building – design for disassembly. Choose screws, not glues. Check out this design for disassembly how-to guide
- Speaking of glue – mouldable silicone adhesive product Suglu is possibly the new gaffer tape of the DIY-fixer and life-hacker world. Read why here.
- For repair and fixer-upperness on a grand scale – get in touch to find out how you can be part of the Fifth Estate’s upcoming Special Feature on Reloved Buildings! Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.