Reduce, reuse… repair? The repair renaissance building skills and communities

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Posted Dec 5 2017 by Sophie Paterson of Lowimpact.org
The repair renaissance in action at a Restart Party in Camden. Credit: The Restart Project

With UK media decrying a recent YouGov survey revealing a whopping 69% of 18-24 year olds in the UK don’t know how to bleed a radiator and 54% would be flummoxed replacing a fuse, what hope is there for a repair renaissance amidst the current tide of throwaway consumerism? Lots, it would seem, thanks to a growing grassroots movement building repair skills and communities across the country.

Reduce, reuse… repair?

Let’s first attempt to gain some perspective a to the scale of our waste issues. Consider this: when it comes to electronic waste alone, according to the UUN-IAS Globlal E-Waste Monitor the UK generated 1.5 million metric tonnes in 2014, second only to Germany in terms of absolute quantities. I don’t know about you but even attempting to visualise what 1.5 million metric tonnes of computers, phones, washing machines and more actually looks like is mind-boggling to say the least. So what are the alternatives to our throwaway culture?

On a mission to reduce this staggering statistic is The Restart Project, a London-based social enterprise which aims to empower and encourage people to use their electronics longer, through sharing repair and maintenance skills. The video below provides an inspiring overview of their work since 2012 to mend our relationship with electronics, with a concern for people and the planet at its core.

Confidence in community

Let’s pause and take a moment here. As a rough estimate, how many electronic items can you count in your home? A washing machine, fridge-freezer, laptop, radio, television, printer, electric oven, telephone and internet modem later and I’m about to run out of fingers. Oh, and then there’s the hoover, too! In fact, the average UK household owns 41 separate electronic devices, excluding lighting, according to the Powering the Nation report released by the Energy Saving Trust in the same year that The Restart Project was founded. This compares to an average of a dozen appliances in the typical 1970s home.

Now, thinking back to those household electronic items you counted: how many of them would you feel confident in being able to repair if you needed to? One? Two? None? If your confidence is low here, you’re by no means alone according to research undertaken by academics at Nottingham Trent University in collaboration with The Restart Project.

Of participants interviewed at Restart Parties held in late 2016, very few respondents were “extremely” confident in undertaking repairs at home (8%), many more were “somewhat” or “moderately” confident (33%) and 48% were only “slightly” or “not at all” confident. Many of the respondents reported that they have previously attempted some kind of repairs at home (56%). However, they report varying levels of success with previous repairs and cite knowledge, skills and confidence as major barriers to further attempts at repair. It is these very barriers that The Restart Project addresses.

The repair renaissance in action thanks to The Restart Project

The Camden community in action at a Repair Party in 2016. Credit: The Restart Project

Their findings hint at the fact that confidence is built best by what is potentially the most powerful element of the project: community.

Restart Parties present opportunities to increase people’s knowledge and skills, and confidence in repair in a supportive environment. Where barriers exist such as lack of knowledge on how to acquire documentation, spare parts and tools, Restart can signpost and support participants at every stage of the repair. In addition, Restart’s focus on facilitating repair, as opposed to conducting the repair on behalf of its participants, enables it to play an instrumental role in raising people’s self-confidence in their own repair abilities…The primary motivation for attending Restart Parties is typically the need to repair something, but the social, community aspect associated with the events improves confidence levels whilst also providing attendees with new skills and knowledge which in future may enable them to attempt further repairs.

The Restart Project is by no means alone in its efforts to encourage a culture of repair. In fact, as a far back as 2009, Martine Postma launched the very first Repair Café in Amsterdam. This soon grew to become an entire foundation dedicated to promoting repair as a viable alternative to continued consumerism. Anyone can go along and learn from community volunteers about how to fix things in 1429 cafés now operating worldwide from India to Lichtenstein, including over 50 in the UK.

Knowing how to make repairs is a skill quickly lost. Society doesn’t always show much appreciation for the people who still have this practical knowledge, and against their will they are often left standing on the sidelines. Their experience is never used, or hardly ever. The Repair Café changes all that! People who might otherwise be sidelined are getting involved again. Valuable practical knowledge is getting passed on. Things are being used for longer and don’t have to be thrown away. This reduces the volume of raw materials and energy needed to make new products. It cuts CO2 emissions, for example, because manufacturing new products and recycling old ones causes CO2 to be released. The Repair Café teaches people to see their possessions in a new light. And, once again, to appreciate their value. The Repair Café helps change people’s mindset. This is essential to kindle people’s enthusiasm for a sustainable society.

Meanwhile in Scotland, a collaboration between Edinburgh University and CHAI has seen the launch of The Edinburgh Remakery, one of five re-use and repair hubs operating across the country. It looks set to prove another brilliant addition to the ever-growing network, as evidence by its recent UK Social Entrepreneur of the Year award. And offering access to online resources in 11 different languages is iFixit, a virtual global community offering an impressive 31,955 manuals and 115,960 solutions for 9,589 different devices – open source and free of charge. It is, so their homepage states, ‘the free repair guide for everything, written by everyone’. Quite an ambition!

What’s in your wardrobe?

Of course there’s much more than just our electronics in need of a repair renaissance. Take our clothes, for instance. The amount of clothing in household residual waste in the UK has reduced by 50,000 tonnes since 2012 but still clocked in at a massive 300,000 tonnes in 2015 in a report from the Waste and Resource Action Programme. In these days of fast fashion it may seem far easier to many to simply to opt for a bin and buy approach rather than to attempt repairs. This comes as little surprise when considering the results of a recent British Heart Foundation survey carried out as part of their Big Stitch Campaign which took place this July. It seems the UK is sleepwalking into a veritable sewing skills shortage.

Nearly six in ten (59%) of people polled revealed they are unable to sew confidently or at all, with over double the amount of men (33%) unable to sew compared to women (15%). A third (33%) of people reveal that they were never even taught how to sew. The absence of sewing skills in today’s society mean half of Brits (50%) have to ask their mothers to help fix their clothes and around a fifth (16%) ask their grandparents for help. A quarter of those polled (23%) can’t even sew on a button on properly, around four in ten people (37%) cannot alter the length of their trousers and a quarter (25%) cannot mend a rip in their clothes. Around a fifth (16%) said that if they lost a button, they would buy a new item of clothing instead of fixing it.

It makes for sobering reading but all is not lost. Enter companies such as Sew Over It, Clothkits and others, with their mission to make making your own clothes a reality using easy to follow how-to guides, pdf patterns, blogs, vlogs and more. If you prefer to learn in person rather than online, then there are plenty of community-based groups offering learning opportunities across a range of textile-based crafts, often for free. One quick search on my local council’s website later and – bingo! – I’ve just discovered Sew Saturdays. These free, family-friendly sessions are held once a month here in Darlington. Open to all ages and abilities, there are others like them happening up and down the country. Meanwhile, the charity WRAP has launched the Love Your Clothes campaign, featuring a host of tips, tools and links to workshops happening near you, as well as a dedicated YouTube channel.

Knowledge at your fingertips

So there you have it: thanks to the likes of The Restart Project, the Repair Café Foundation, iFixit, the Remakery network and more, unless it’s well and truly broken we simply have no excuse not to give fixing things a try! It’s time to exercise our right to repair and join the thousands of everyday people nurturing a repair renaissance under our very noses. You could even set one up yourself. Oh, and just in case you’re one of the 23% who aren’t quite sure about sewing on a button, here’s a handy guide.

 


About the author

Sophie Paterson works as part of the Lowimpact.org team with a focus on social media and book promotion. She spent the past year living and volunteering on a farm in Devon. In any spare time she undertakes natural building work and training and attempts to keep up her Arabic language skills.