Moving America Forward

It’s Time to Stop Replacing Broken Things — These Cafes Have the Solution

April 5, 2019
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It’s Time to Stop Replacing Broken Things — These Cafes Have the Solution
Fix repair cafe
At repair cafes, customers bring in items for volunteers to help fix — all for free. Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
When household items break, it’s normal to want to buy a new item and throw the old one away. But repair cafes are part of a grassroots movement to create less waste by empowering owners to fix what they already own, saving them money (and helping the planet) in the process.

Step inside a repair cafe and you’ll find tables filled with welding equipment, wrenches and woodworking tools.

People trickle in holding a broken lamp, ripped quilt or a wobbly bike.

Items are brought in with the hope they might be saved. The quilt might have been a gift from a deceased mother or a bike from a longtime friend.

A repair cafe is often the last step before the junkyard.

Volunteers gather at these cafes and fix broken items for free. The volunteers put their knowledge and skills to the test: What should the torn umbrella be repaired with? What part of a computer’s hard drive needs fixing? How can we salvage this chair?

Usually, the repair sessions take place during the afternoon, inside libraries, community centers, churches and thrift stores. Volunteers come with spools of thread, monkey wrenches and screwdrivers to offer whatever help they can.

Together, they fix the broken items. It’s a service, but it’s also a learning opportunity, so if the item breaks again, the owner can fix it without help.

“What’s really great is not simply that things get fixed but really that it’s a community event,” says Ed Irlbacher, who started a repair cafe in Middletown, New York.

Irlbacher estimates that 90 percent of what comes in can be fixed. Some of the most common items are lamps, electronics and jewelry.

“There are stories of people being attached to a thing because their father left it for them, or they had it from long ago,” says Martine Postma, the founder of Repair Cafe Foundation. “People are so grateful and happy, so that created a very special atmosphere. That really moves me.”

Postma developed the idea for repair cafes after having her second child. She noticed just how easy it is to be wasteful in today’s consumer-focused society.  

Instead of repairing a broken iron, you can order a replacement on Amazon. If a shirt tears, you buy a new one. It has become much easier to buy a brand new product rather than repair an old one.

“Why do we make so much waste on a daily basis?” Postma says. “Because we no longer do repairs. So I had this idea to reintroduce repairs as a normal and attractive activity in daily life.”

In 2009, Postma hosted the first repair cafe in Amsterdam. After its success, she launched the nonprofit Repair Cafe Foundation in 2011. For a low fee, the foundation will send you information on how to start your own cafe.

Repair cafes are popping up around the world. Currently, there are about 1,500 cafes in 35 countries around the world.

In 2015, the U.S. generated 262.4 million tons of garbage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

As landfills grow, there’s a grassroots movement to create less waste. Repair cafes are an easy solution to keep appliances, clothes and furniture out of the garbage while saving money for their owners.

In the U.S., there is also a growing movement supporting the right to repair. Companies like Apple and John Deere deliberately create products that cannot be fixed. For example, companies aren’t required to publish repair manuals or the equipment might be designed with a software lock or a company-specific screwdriver might be needed for a repair.

Right to Repair legislation would require companies to provide repair instructions and sell spare parts. Organizations like iFixit, Repair.org and US PIRG are leading the fight. There are currently 20 states with Right to Repair bills.

As the Right to Repair becomes a national issue, it’s giving people the opportunity to repair everything from a cell phone to a tractor.

Items stay out of landfills and helping their neighbors leaves people with a sense of accomplishment.

“It’s my way of giving back,” Irlbacher says. “ And I like the feeling of getting something done.”

More: Meet a Disabled Veteran Jump Starting Soldiers’ Cars — and Their Lives

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