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Community Efforts Target Throw-Away Culture: Volunteers at Repair Cafes Fix, Tinker and Share

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 17, 2012

Martine Postma is a former journalist who started the first Repair Café in the Netherlands in October 2009, after the birth of her second child got her thinking more about the environment. Now there are 30 repair cafes throughout the country started by people who volunteer their skills to patch, mend, rebuild and fix old clothes, appliances, and other used items that might otherwise end up in landfills.

A New York Times story by Sally McGrane describes the Repair Café in Amsterdam, where a retired pharmacist, an upholsterer, and an unemployed man gathered to fix old irons, lamps, vacuums, and other assorted items that had lost their luster or function. Postma explained she had been looking for a way to help people fix things instead of adding to the planet’s burgeoning supply of waste. As friends and neighbors gathered to donate their time, ingenuity and second hand goods, the idea caught on. The Repair Foundation has raised $525,000 through a Dutch government grant and support from other foundations and individual donors. The Times reports the money pays for staff, marketing, and a Repair Café bus. The Repair Foundation also provides interested groups with information on how to get started, including lists of tools and tips for raising money.

For many participants, the social benefits of Repair Cafes are dominant. People who come together as strangers enjoy the camaraderie and useful work, as many older volunteers apply craftsmanship and tinkering skills many in younger generations never learned. The ecological mission is also compelling. William McDonough, an architect who deplores planned obsolescence and likes the collective repair idea, tells The Times about his "cradle to cradle” design philosophy, his belief that things should be built so that they can be taken apart and the raw materials re-used. Listen to McDonough’s TED talk.

Some repair and reuse initiatives are underway in the U.S. The Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD) in Montana has a tool library, community classes and activities, and resources for repairing, renovating, recycling, restoring and sharing.

The West Seattle Fixers Collective started in the summer of 2011, and meets regularly the West Seattle Tool Library. A post by Anna Fahey at the describes an "abundance swap” where residents of Ashland, Oregon contribute items for an alternative to holiday shopping for new gifts. She also notes the city of Portland, Oregon, has a Be Resourceful site with information on tool libraries, fix-it fairs, and resources for sharing and repairing shoes and bicycles, and Vancouver, BC, has tool library and bicycle repair program for youth.

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