Can we fix it? The mend cafes waging war on throwaway culture


When fixing items is actively discouraged by manufacturers, recycling becomes a political act, say Repair Cafe volunteers

A vacuum cleaner, a hair straightener, a laptop, Christmas illuminates, an e-reader, a blender, a kettle, two purses, a pair of jeans, a remote-control helicopter, a spoon, a dining-room chair, a lamp and hair clippers. All broken.

It sounds like a heap of things that you’d stick in boxes and take to the tip. In fact, it’s a list of things mended in a single afternoon by British volunteers determined to get people to stop hurling stuff away.

This is the Reading Repair Cafe, part of a burgeoning international network aimed at confronting a world of stuff, of white goods littering dumps in west Africa and junk swilling through the oceans and seas in huge gyres.

The hair clippers belong to William, who does not want to give his surname but cheerfully describes himself as” mechanically incompetent “. He has owned them for 25 years, but 10 years ago they stopped working and they have been sitting unused in his cupboard ever since.

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He sits down at the table of Colin Haycock, an IT professional who volunteers at the mend cafe, which has been running monthly for about four years and is a place where people can bring all manner of household items to be fixed for free. In less than five minutes, Haycock has unscrewed and removed the blades, cleaned out some gunk from inside the machine, oiled the blades, and screwed everything is back together. The clippers purr happily.

William looks sheepish; Haycock looks pleased.” I wish they were all that simple ,” he says.

Today, the repairers will divert 24 kg of garbage from going to landfill and save 284 kg of CO2. Some items can’t be fixed on the spot- notably a hunting cornet split in two, which requires soldering with a blow torch- but very little needs to be thrown away.

Gabrielle Stanley, who used to run a garment modifications business, says she was drawn to volunteering at the mend coffeehouse to combat the” throwaway culture” she sees.” You go into certain stores …” – she throws a darknes seem -” how they can sell clothes for that cost, when I couldn’t even buy the fabric for that much? And then you hear about things that happen[ in the factories] in the far east .”

Sophie Unwin, the co-founder of the Remakery in Brixton and the founder of Edinburgh Remakery has been inundated with investigations about setting up similar enterprises abroad. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

An estimated 300, 000 tonnes of apparel was sent to landfill in the UK in 2016 and a report from Wrap sets the average lifespan for a piece of clothing in the UK at 3.3 years.

Globally, the amount of e-waste made is expected to hit 50 m tonnes by the end of 2018. This is partly driven by consumers’ eagerness for new products, but there are also concerns about built-in obsolescence, in which manufacturers design products to break down after a certain amount of time and is difficult or expensive to fix. In December, Apple admitted to slowing older models of phones, though it claimed it did this for operational not obsolescence reasons.


Repair cafe volunteer Stuart Ward says that when fixing items is actively discouraged by manufacturers, mend becomes a political act. He is vehement about the” right to repair”, a movement opposed to the practices of companies like the machinery company John Deere, which, under copyright laws, doesn’t allow people to fix their own equipment or take them to independent repairers .

” You own your equipment, you’re allowed to take a screwdriver to it and play with it ,” he says.” It’s something fundamental .”

Teaching people how to fix their own gear is at the heart of the Edinburgh Remakery, a store on the main street of Leith that is part repair shop, portion secondhand store, proportion mend education centre.

” We do the repair in front of a customer , not out in the back , not hidden ,” says Sotiris Katsimbas, the leading IT technician at the Remakery. To do this, Katsimbas and his squad conduct one-to-one IT mend appointments for a small fee, as do their colleagues who specialise in sewing and furniture repairs.

” It’s a matter of confidence. It’s not sorcery. Someone set it together, someone can take it apart, you only need a Phillips screwdriver and some knowledge ,” says Katsimbas as he indicates Daniel Turner how to open up his laptop so he can clean out the fluff and dust that is causing the machine to overheat.

Since it opened in 2012, the Remakery has diverted 205 tonnes of waste that would have ended up in landfill. But the Remakery is unique in that, unlike much of the repair motion, which is volunteer-led, it is a viable business, hiring 11 staff and 10 freelancers. Last year the shop had an income of PS236, 000- 30% from awards, 70% generated through sales of furniture and electronics, workshops and mend appointments.

Quick guide

Further reading

Fix it

If you want to learn how to fix your electronics, the Restart Project runs events to teach people, “youre seeing” where their events are here.

Borrow it

If you want to fix something round the house, but don’t have the tools you need and can’t afford to buy them for a one-off job, you can find a local tool library where you can hire what you need.

Read it

Michelle McGagh spend a year without buying new things, which involved a fair sum of fixing as well as going without, her experiences make for fascinating reading.

Photograph: Nastco/ iStockphoto

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