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If It's Broke, Please Do Fix It

Reduce waste, save money and help the environment by repairing broken possessions rather than throwing them out

By Sue Sutherland-Wood

When something breaks these days — your watch, the vacuum cleaner, the dreaded wonky computer printer — it is often not cost effective (or even possible) to have it fixed.

A person fixing their mixer at home. Next Avenue,
The iFixit community (more than 3 million people have joined) thrives due to the site's collaborative free sharing of tips and experience.   |  Credit: Ifixit.com

This frustrates me on several levels, particularly the thoughtless, continual replacing of stuff that is not sustainable for the planet; unnecessary expense when prices are soaring; and finally, the apparently wildly unrealistic expectation that items will last for more than a year.

(For the record, this is not an "OK Boomer" kind of rant — being forced to replace things because of "planned obsolescence" is real.)

Magic With Needle and Thread

During the pandemic, I noticed that the seat cushions on my favorite couch appeared threadbare, with the foam stuffing actually poking through in places. I flipped them over only to be reminded of a past cat's freestyle shredding.

Since this was a sofa with "good bones" I sought quotes to have it reupholstered; the estimates took my breath away — they were almost as high as the cost of a new piece. I had already looked at "new" options that were within my budget, but they all were hideous, expensive and seemingly made from empty cereal boxes.

Finally, a friend suggested I contact a tailor.

Using fabric from an extra throw cushion I provided, this heavenly magician mended all the damage (even from the cat!) and the stitching is virtually invisible. I was beyond delighted and the price was so reasonable I included a hefty tip. Neither of us could stop smiling.

Making Repairs Accessible

But why is it that so many of us no longer get creative about fixing things? Is it the allure of a one-click solution or the conviction that undertaking a household repair ourselves is too intimidating and frankly, too much trouble? Yet we all know it is not environmentally reasonable to be endlessly replacing items that could easily be given a second life.

Why is it that so many of us no longer get creative about fixing things?

These were the kinds of questions being considered back in 2009 by then-journalist Martine Postma when she introduced the "Repair Café" in Amsterdam.

The "café" invited people to bring in ordinary items in need of repair — small appliances, bicycles, clothes and jewelry, among others. Tea and coffee were provided as curious visitors drifted in, and the resulting vibe was not unlike a friendly community center.

Volunteer experts did the work, encouraging the people who owned the items to join in and potentially learn a new skill from the experience.

And it was free.

The success of Postma's first Repair Café led her to found the non-profit Repair Café Foundation to spread the idea beyond the Netherlands. There are now more than 2,200 cafés worldwide, some of which are set up in libraries, the offices of community-based organizations or church meeting rooms.

You do not need to leave home to get help. Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules created the online repair community iFixit in 2003. Wiens, who is CEO, attributes his do-it-yourself passion for repairing over replacing to his tinkering grandfather.

"When you fix something — just for a moment — you're the victor," he has written. His enthusiasm for improving the world via simple repairs that anyone can do is refreshing and contagious.

Reuse, Repair, Repeat

It brings to mind the song "If It Can't Be Reduced" by the folk singer and environmental activist Pete Seeger:

If it can't be reduced, reused, repaired
Rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold
Recycled or composted
Then it should be restricted, redesigned
Or removed from production

Loads of Advice, Many Formats

At first glance, iFixit may seem to lean heavily toward electronic solutions but dig down and you will discover over 86,000 free repair guides — in 12 languages — for all kinds of brand-name products. There are also question-and-answer forums and simple step-by-step instructions with photographs for everything from unjamming a paper shredder to repairing the keypad on a flute to maintaining vintage cars.

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The iFixit community (more than 3 million people have joined) thrives due to the site's collaborative free sharing of tips and experience. While most of the repair guides are submitted by "regular people," all content is reviewed by iFixit experts and updated as needed based on comments and experience.

Technical writers on staff also produce their own guides internally, and the site has a store that sells specialized electronic tools, such as the 'iOpener' for gently removing glued components.

Do Something, Not Everything

Of course, not everyone (especially those interested in maintaining a relationship!) is going to look forward to spending a Sunday afternoon on their stomach trying to fix the dishwasher; however, with guidance you might be very comfortable replacing a cracked cell phone screen. Or fixing the coffee maker.

"When you fix something — just for a moment — you're the victor."

Merely giving something a thorough cleaning can restore life. This has surprised me many times — and I'm looking at you, my geriatric-yet-resilient kitchen mixer.

Small things count, particularly if we all do them. Cell phones are now considered to be among the most detrimental waste problem facing the environment, and if we could all hang on to our cell phones for just one extra year it would be the carbon equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road.

Asserting a 'Right to Repair'

In recent years, consumers around the world have registered their dissatisfaction with industrial design that makes it difficult to impossible for them to repair devices they own, starting "Right to Repair" movements in many countries.

They are pressing manufacturers for three things: products that can be repaired without having to be returned to the manufacturer, access to parts required to make repairs and manuals explaining how to fix devices.

President Biden gave U.S. campaigners a lift last year by directing the Federal Trade Commission to forbid manufacturers to stand in the way of independent repair shops and DIY repairs.

Think Creatively

Finally, if you have something that you really feel needs the help of a professional (like my couch!) don't assume that "no one does that anymore." It may just be that different people do things once done by someone else. A local shoe repair shop, for instance, once stitched an errant leather strap onto a shoulder bag for me — and reinforced the corners as well.

Ask friends for referrals, post your question on neighborhood Facebook/Reddit sites, even ask at your local library, and start reading bulletin boards.

If all else fails, consider the motto from "Red Green," the Canadian comedy show that parodied home-repair programs: "Spare the duct tape, spoil the job ..."

Contributor Sue Sutherland-Wood
Sue Sutherland-Wood has contributed to many publications, both in print and online, and her short fiction has won awards. Read more of Sue's work on her blog. Read More
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