Community Repair: The Cure for Your Consumption Blues?

The other day, a piece my shower handle cracked off. It didn’t bother me. The shower handle still worked. It just looked a little funny.

My girlfriend thought it looked less “funny” and more “totally and utterly broken.” She thought we might need a new shower handle. I proclaimed that I would fix it myself. She said, “Fantastic!” But she knew I wouldn’t, so she ordered a new shower handle online. When I learned of this lack of faith, I was a little bummed. But then I thought about it a little more, and it made sense.

I suppose I do have a history of bold claims and little follow-through. I’m like the sixth-graders who run for school president and promise to lengthen recess even though they have zero power to make that happen.

I’ve offered to sew up holes in dress shirts even though I’ve never touched a needle and thread. I’ve boldly stated that I would sand an old table even though I’m not sure what sanding even does or if it applies to tabletops. (You sand it and then… paint it? Maybe?)

It goes without saying that I don’t actually do this stuff. I say I will, and I even buy books like “Home Improvement for Dummies,” but nothing ever actually gets improved. Given all that, my girlfriend wasn’t questioning my abilities. She was being a realist, and she didn’t want to live with a broken shower handle.

A few days later, the new handle arrived. I unboxed it and stared at it. Then, something changed in me. It was like I was looking at the physical manifestation of my lack of effort and determination. That 6-inch piece of plastic felt like it was mocking my ability to perform basic human functions. I felt lazy. The box might as well have come with a 64-ounce soft drink, a candy bar, and one of those hover chairs used by the futuristic blob people in the Pixar film Wall-E.

I proceeded to do something profound (by my standards). I went to the hardware store, bought some Super Glue, and put the broken shower handle back together. It was something most 3-year-olds could have done, but it felt like a big deal to me. I felt invigorated.

Turns out there has been a big missing component in my quest to live a financially responsible,  mindful, and ecologically friendly lifestyle: My inability to fix up and reuse my things. Sure, I could upgrade a computer and keep using it, but the idea of actually fixing something? Wasn’t happening. Handymen and plumbers look more like sorcerers from where I’m sitting.

A Free Solution

I’ve been actively trying to change my consumerist ways, and simple things like applying Super Glue to a broken handle are a step in the right direction. For any would-be handyman like me who just doesn’t have the time and energy to commit to fixing and refurbishing, there is an increasingly popular solution: community organized repair events.

These are free community events that are popping up all over the country where you can bring in old or broken items and get help fixing them. Rather than tossing that broken lamp, you can spruce it up and use it for years to come.

What better way to combat planned obsolescence, excessive consumerism, and the endless onslaught of disposable goods that are filling our landfills and littering our world?

This growing movement has its roots in the Netherlands, where in 2009 a local sustainability advocate named Martine Postma started the first “Repair Cafe.” Since then, the idea has exploded in popularity. There are now 850 Repair Cafes in 20 countries.

The Bolton, Mass., chapter is a particularly compelling success story. Their popular drop-in clinics have inspired other groups of Boston-area tinkerers, such as the Somerville Tool Library, to host events called “Fixer Fairs,” where people are encouraged to take in everything from broken toasters to non-functioning staplers to mini-fridges on the fritz.

A cool thing about Boston’s Fixer Fair and other Repair Cafes is the emphasis on not just fixing the items, but supplying people with knowledge as well. They hope to empower people to be more proactive in fixing things themselves. It’s hard to believe it’s all free, but that’s part of the ethos of the whole movement.

mending a blouse

Free ‘Fixer Fairs’ and drop-in repair clinics help people give new life to broken appliances or mend old clothing that might otherwise end up in a landfill. Photo: Repair Cafe

To see if there’s a Repair Cafe near you, visit their website. If you live in Boston, Chicago, Portland, or Philadelphia, congrats. You already have a bustling, free community repair scene.

If there’s nothing near you, then you’re out of luck. Might as well order in some pizza and get started on some retail therapy. See how many small items you can order that arrive in boxes so big you have to turn them diagonally just to fit them through your front door. Then you’ll feel better.

NO! Don’t do that!

If you’re inspired to build your own community of fixers, it’s entirely possible. Repair Cafe allows you to open your own chapter, and your rights as a free person allow you to do something similar if you want. There’s no reason you can’t talk with members of your community about starting something. If you’d rather do it from the comfort of your home, you can put out the word on social media.

I just listened to an episode of the excellent podcast “Reply All” that showed how powerful a simple Facebook group can be. It told the story of a 50-year-old, non-political mother who used Facebook to organize one of the biggest political protests in Guatemalan history.

Most likely, people wanting to fix old coffee makers won’t be quite that passionate, but they are surely out there. For those such as myself who are still acclimating to a new city, a fixer fair could even double as a way to meet like-minded people in your community.

If you want to get involved in some way but aren’t quite sure where to start, you might want to check out The Story of Stuff project. They are passionate about trying to change the way we think when it comes to production and consumption, so they developed a quiz to help you find your calling. It helps you figure out if you’re better suited to communicate, organize, network, or perform some other function to get your unique venture off the ground.

Final Thoughts

I recently lost a computer mouse and bought a new one. The copy on the packaging bragged about how it would last “for three years!” They were bragging about their longevity. To me, this was like being hired for a job and then your boss saying, “Enjoy it while it lasts, you’ll be fired in three years. Isn’t that great?!”

My grandparents have a record player that was built when color TV seemed like a science-fiction fantasy, and that thing still works great. Yet you’re telling me a fist-sized piece of plastic with a scroll wheel should only last three years?

Let’s rage against the dying of the electronics. We need to harness our ingenuity and the DIY spirit of our communities to make sure we get the most out of our things. If we can step out of the consumerist cycle, we will do our part for the environment and we’ll have more time to focus on the things that truly matter.

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