Rebuilt to Last

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar

Nearly 42 million tons of electric and electronic equipment, 5.9 kilograms per person, were thrown away world-wide last year. But several initiatives now aim to reduce that waste by helping people fix their appliances and devices.

People throw away lots of items that aren’t garbage yet, but simply need to be repaired. The problem is people don’t know how to do that anymore,” says Martine Postma, who launched the first Repair Café, in Amsterdam in 2009.

“But I noticed that in every community there are still some people who do know how to do it. In many cases they are older or retired or have lost their jobs—these people are not the center of attention in our society, but they do have skills.”

The Repair Café Foundation currently has more than 700 local organizers in 18 countries running their own Repair Cafés where people can bring broken appliances and be shown how to fix them by volunteer experts, for free.

“People learn something about repair,” Ms. Postma says. “They see how to open their item, what it does. Often it turns out items aren’t very broken. It’s just a wire or a screw that came loose, or maybe it needs to be cleaned or have the dust blown away. Then people see that repair is a real alternative to throwing away or buying new. Also, it’s fun.”

Small items, such as fans, cameras, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, toasters, microwaves or electronic toys comprise the biggest category of e-waste, totaling 12.8 million tons, according to the U.N. And the amount of e-waste is growing by 4% to 5% a year.

The European Commission has set minimum targets to recover 85% of appliances, equipment and devices from landfill waste flows, and to prepare 80% for re-use or recycling.

iStock_000028806034_SmallHowever, it isn’t always easy to fix broken objects. Besides lacking know-how, people seldom have the appropriate tools. In some communities, tool libraries lend out an array of equipment, while at Repair Cafés, the repair gurus usually bring their own. “Often, fixing things is their biggest hobby, and they have the right tools,” Ms. Postma says.

They have their work cut out. “Many products have been designed to last only a few years and then be replaced with something new,” she says. “If that’s your idea, then you don’t need to design a product in such a way that it can be opened easily. Or use screws that people have the right screwdriver for. Or share information, with a manual.”

Kyle Wiens searched in vain for a manual after he broke his laptop. “I tried to take it apart, but it was hard to get open,” he says. “I managed to get the computer apart and put it back together, but it wasn’t quite right. I knew that if I had had some insight as to how it was put together, I would have been able to repair it.”

The experience led Mr. Wiens and Luke Soules, in 2003, to co-found iFixit, which writes manuals for products that lack such information. The iFixit staff disassembles products to reverse-engineer repair instructions. They also get help from the repair community, with members posting photographs and explanations to the wiki-based site, to “teach each other along the way,” he says.

iFixit’s advice is free, but the company sells spare parts and specialized tools. Indeed, Mr. Wiens sees parts and service, rather than planned obsolescence, as the future for manufacturers. “If you’re buying a power drill for €25 ($27.80), it’s probably not going to last very long,” he says. “The manufacturer is probably planning on selling you another one.” High-end construction tools, by contrast, are made to last and to be fixed, “because contractors are very demanding,” he notes.

We have a different relationship with cheap, replaceable objects compared with expensive items. With the former, “you’re more or less a slave to the product—you’re no longer master of the product—because you don’t know how it works or how to fix it,” Ms. Postma says. “You only know a new one is available. It is not sustainable to do this. Repair needs to get back into everyday life.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock




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