Repair Elsewhere: Repair Cafés

We want to help spread awareness of like-minded projects that foster repair, reuse, consumer empowerment, and community building throughout the world. So we’re highlighting these “kindred spirits” in a series of posts on “Repair Elsewhere.” Look for other posts in the series within the “Repair” category in our post archives.

Repair Cafe logo, consisting of the words in stylized font alongside  two interlocking cogs

A Repair Café is a community meeting organized and hosted by local residents or organizations where members of the public work together with volunteer guides to repair a variety of household items, such as small appliances, clothing, electronics, bicycles, etc. The gatherings are typically free and held in public spaces, and the goals include not only waste reduction, but also sharing of knowledge, consumer empowerment, and building a stronger sense of community through cooperation. Sound familiar? It should, since the concept of Repair Cafés helped shape the idea for the Illini Gadget Garage (IGG)!

The notion of having some form of technology repair center on campus was proposed and revised among staff members at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) working on the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) for many years, as I explain in my profile on the IGG site (I’m IGG adviser and ISTC sustainability specialist, Joy Scrogum, if we’ve not met. Thanks for reading our posts!) Despite many attempts, my colleagues and I weren’t able to obtain funding for those previous iterations of the idea. Eventually, I learned more about Repair Cafés, which don’t focus specifically on a particular type of consumer product. I thought, that’s what we’re really trying to start–a Repair Café for electronics! And that’s how I would describe it to people. (For those on the UI campus I’d also say the idea would be a bit like the Campus Bike Center, but for electronics–but we’ll talk about that project in a separate post.) This helped make the concept understandable, relatable, and appealing, and thankfully we ultimately received seed funding from the UI Student Sustainability Committee, as well as donations from HOBI International and iFixit to launch the project.

But I digress–back to the story of Repair Cafés. The concept was created by Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2009. Martine was a former journalist and mother of two, who found herself considering the environment more after the birth of her second child.  In an excellent article on the concept from a 2012 edition of the New York Times (“An Effort to Bury a Throwaway Culture One Repair at a Time” by Sally McGrane), Postma explained that she was struck by observing the tendency to throwaway items that were not “that broken.” From the Times article: “I had the feeling I wanted to do something, not just write about it,” she said. But she was troubled by the question: “How do you try to do this as a normal person in your daily life?” She drew her own inspiration from a “a design exhibit about the creative, cultural and economic benefits of repairing and recycling,” and fixed her sights on helping people fix things as a practical approach to waste reduction.

That design exhibit was called “Platform 21=Repairing.” The organizers created a “Repair Manifesto” which encouraged people to “Stop Recycling. Start Repairing.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but totally agree that recycling alone is not enough, and that repair and reuse are absolutely essential sustainability strategies. The exhibit was held in a former round chapel in Amsterdam that continued to serve as a workspace for the organization Platform 21 for a few years. See http://www.platform21.nl/page/133/en and http://www.platform21.nl/page/6026/en for more information on that project.

Smiling woman sitting at a work table covered with various tools. In the background, people work together on repairs.
Martine Postma, from the Repair Cafe web site.

Martine held the first Repair Café in Amsterdam in a theater foyer. The idea was taken to multiple other public venues, and ultimately inspired the formation of “spin offs” in countries around the world. According to the Times, funding is provided to the Repair Café Foundation through grants from the Dutch government, support from other foundations, and small donations, which pay for staffing, daily expenses, marketing, and a Repair Café bus. (Don’t laugh, but I’ve totally thought of having something like that for the Illini Gadget Garage–like a book mobile or mobile science center for fixing things! Someday perhaps. Anybody want to donate a vehicle??? 🙂 ) The project’s web site provides information on how you can set up your own Repair Café–for a small fee you receive a manual, the logo and marketing templates, and listing in their online directory, which can assist in connecting your project to like-minded projects near you. The Illini Gadget Garage chose not to become an “official” Repair Cafe because of our more narrow focus on electronics and small appliances, and also because we thought there would be greater value in associating our identity with the University of Illinois, where we launched and operate. In this part of the world, at this point in time, “Illini” is more immediately meaningful for people than “Repair Café.” Plus, since we’re trying to build a culture of repair and community spirit around repair and reuse right here in the home of the Illini, a more “customized” identity seemed right.

Visit the Repair Café web site to learn more about Repair Cafés worldwide, including several in the US. In Illinois, Repair Cafés exist in Oak Park and Chicago. If you’re on the UIUC campus, contact us to visit our physical workshop or arrange a “pop-up” clinic at your building. On campus pop-ups are currently free thanks to the support of our sponsors. If you’re off campus, we conduct community pop-ups with support of sponsors (consider a donation to help us spread the repair spirit), and for a fee we can bring a pop-up to your organization or business for a special employee engagement event. If you want to become a volunteer, we’d love to have people from any academic discipline, and staff and community members as well as students. Join us–repair is not only great for the planet and pocketbook, it’s also a lot of fun!

A pair of women sit at a sewing machine working together, while additional women can be seen on each side working with cloth and mending by hand.
Image from the Repair Cafe International Facebook page.

Author: Joy Scrogum

Joy is a Sustainability Specialist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has worked on developing & maintaining online resources for the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable since 2001. She also currently coordinates the Sustainable Electronics Initiative & works on Zero Waste Illinois projects, including the Illini Gadget Garage and the Green Lunchroom Challenge. Key past projects include coordinating the International Sustainable Electronics Competition, developing & teaching ENG 498 "Sustainable Technology: Environmental & Social Impacts of Innovations," & Greening Schools, which focused on making K-12 facilities & curricula more sustainable.