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.

Apple Dreams in Green

In recent news, Apple released their annual Environmental Responsibility report which highlights the things that the corporation is doing to be more “green” such as encouraging renewable energy throughout the manufacturing process and trying to create sustainable practices for the paper used in their product packaging. But perhaps the most notable mention that came from this report was the declaration that one day it would end its reliance on mining and make its products solely from recycled materials or renewable resources. This is certainly a lofty goal for Apple and one worth pursuing even if they’re not sure how to go about it or when they’ll be able to achieve it.

Apple has been dubbed one of the most environmentally friendly technology companies in the world according to Greenpeace’s Clean Energy Index, leading the way among other tech industry giants like Google and Facebook. Apple has made significant progress in being environmentally conscientious from where it was several years ago and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. However, as they continue to seek ways to benefit the environment, they do so in pushing forward in developing new technologies rather than seeking to extend the life of existing ones.

Lifespans for electronics in the industry – as a whole – are dropping; even Apple places the iPhone’s estimated lifespan at around 3 years; not terribly impressive considering its cost. Two elements which play largely into determining how long a device can be considered relevant and useful are planned obsolescence and consumerism. Planned obsolescence, where devices are designed to fail at some point so that new devices can be purchased, can be done through a variety of means such as: limiting warranty periods, ending software upgrades and product support, hardware decisions, and discontinuing the availability of repair parts.

For all of Apple’s green efforts, they clearly do not want individuals working on repairing and extending the life of their products, even going so far as to shred its old products so that salvageable parts are not resold; a method that is used to protect its brand by preventing secondhand parts from flooding the market. While the shredded remains of iPhones are sifted apart and recycled to the best of Apple’s ability, the fact remains that those components could have been put to better use in keeping another device from landing in the shredder itself.

Image of shredded electronic devices
Shredded electronic devices from a Canadian E-waste Recycling Facility (no affiliation with Apple or this article). Photo from iFixit.org. Click the image to read more.

Consumerism is the other side of the technology lifespan coin for those individuals who want to have the latest and greatest devices. As a culture, we’re far more willing to go out and purchase something new rather than attempt to repair it and the tech industry knows this and promotes it. Apple, in showing off their going green endeavors, are either consciously or unconsciously coaxing consumers into feeling less guilt about buying new models each year. Consumers enjoy feeling that their purchase is created in an environmentally friendly way and that the devices will be recycled at the end of their lifecycle, but supporting Apple’s sustainable practices is negated by buying a brand-new phone each year when the old one worked just fine. In fact, studies have been done that show the availability of recycling as an option can lead to an increase in resource usage.

While recycling is a good alternative to throwing things away, prolonging the useful life of a product is far better. There’s a reason that Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is presented in that order.

Local (Champaign-Urbana) Repair Guide

We know that even “do-it-together” repair can be intimidating for some people, or maybe you just don’t have the time in your busy schedule currently to come in and participate in the repair of your device. We understand, but want you to still consider repair before replacement of your device. Also, there are times when a client comes in for assistance and we find that the problem with their device is beyond our abilities at the Illini Gadget Garage, but we still believe the item in question can be repaired. For these types of instances, we have composed a list of local repair shops, and posted it on our website under the “Repair” tab. You can either access a spreadsheet that list addresses, contact information, hours, and the types of devices serviced, or a map that shows their physical locations.

Be aware that you will not find chains like Best Buy or Dick Van Dyke listed. This is because they mainly specialize in servicing products that were bought on their premises–plus we know you’re probably already aware of those options for service. If your merchandise is currently covered by a warranty policy, we fully encourage you to take it the location from where it was purchased. We just want you to know that the main focus of the resources we provide is to guide you to shops that specialize in repair no matter where or how long ago an item was purchased.

We also want to be clear–the Illini Gadget Garage does NOT endorse any of the listed businesses. This list is provided for information purposes only, to help those who come to us for assistance to find additional services they require. We do not refer clients to specific businesses; we merely provide the names of companies that can service the device in question. The decision as to which, if any, of the local shops you go to, is yours as a consumer.

What if your device can’t be repaired? Don’t worry–we can help you with that too. Check out our “Recycle” page at http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/recycle/. That page includes a link to the Champaign County Electronics Recycling guide, which lists local electronics recyclers, and provides links to the Illinois EPA Service Locator page and other relevant information on the electronics landfill ban in Illinois.

Have other questions? Have a suggestion for a local repair shop to add to our list? Send us a note at illinigadgetgarage@gmail.com.

Right to Repair and the Tech Industry

How would you feel about passing legislation that increases the lifespan of your tech devices, reduces e-Waste, and creates American jobs? Numerous states across the country have such legislation on the table in the form of Right to Repair bills. Success in forcing automotive manufacturers to provide repair information to independent shops has emboldened consumer advocates and politicians to propose similar laws in regards to the electronic hardware and software found in modern technological gadgets. Likewise, if just one state passes a Right to Repair law in this new arena, then a domino effect will likely occur in the rest of the country. Manufacturers will likely see the writing on the wall and will react proactively to preempt nationwide legislation, as they did after the Massachusetts automotive bill was passed.

Big business is usually hesitant to loosen their stranglehold on an industry, unless they are forced to do so.  From their perspective, this makes sense as tighter control strongly correlates with higher profits. For example, Apple is notorious for making items that are difficult and expensive to repair. To repair one of their products, you need special screwdrivers that cannot be found in stores. Additionally, they do not release repair information to the public and it is sometimes prohibitively expensive to repair an item at the Apple Store. Specifically, their repair service for an iPod shuffle is more expensive than purchasing a new iPod.[1] These measures go against the best interests of the consumer. If companies like Apple were forced to make repair parts, tools, and information available to consumers and small repair shops, then the “little guy” would assuredly benefit. Apple would no longer be able to charge exorbitant rates for repair, as small businesses and do-it-yourselfers would have the means to cheaply fix electronic devices. After all, the very concept of ownership should mean that the manufacturer can no longer dictate how an item is used once it is purchased by a consumer.[1]

Besides the obvious impact on our wallets, extending the lifespan of our tech devices has numerous other positive implications as well. For starters, most tech devices are manufactured using a wide array of materials. Smartphones alone contain roughly 50 periodic table elements used in their manufacture.[2] Many of these elements are not recoverable by recycling and as we can all surmise, whenever anything is mined and or used in manufacturing, there are potential negative impacts on humans and the environment–even if it’s just the energy or water used in processing. Thus, it is important to emphasize repairing and reuse over recycling, to maximize resource efficiency and minimize negative impacts. Optimally people will get their products fixed and keep using them. If this is not the case, it is vital that an item gets repaired if possible and reused by either being sold, donated, or given away. Oftentimes, items are not re-purposed because tech companies prevent repairs. This is one type of planned obsolescence, and this phenomenon is both overly pervasive and easily preventable in so many areas. Even self-cleaning litter boxes contain chips within their cleaning solution cartridges that will no longer work once the cartridge has been used more than a factory predetermined number of times. The owner is forced to purchase a new cartridge, even if they have the know-how to take it apart and refill it, because it is programmed not to work after that predetermined number of uses.[3]

A crucial side effect of enabling more people to repair items is the creation of domestic jobs. We live in a global economy, and when manufacturer-imposed limits make it impractical to fix technological devices in the United States, these items are shipped to India or China.[4] These items are repaired abroad and value that could be created for the U.S. economy is literally shipped overseas. Moreover, the U.S. repair sector makes up as much as 4% of our GDP and is composed of mostly small operations that have the potential to create jobs at a local level.[4] By catering to large tech companies and turning monopolistic inclinations into law, it can readily be seen that the American economy and small business is damaged in return. After all, even though so much information has been denied, thousands of cell phone repair businesses and organizations have still managed to thrive. If they were given proper diagnostic access and repair equipment, their benefit to society would grow to even greater heights.

As with any newly proposed policy, the Right to Repair movement has garnered some criticism and opponents. Some parties emphasize the difficulty and danger  they believe to be inherent in electronics repair, claiming that do-it-yourselfers shouldn’t attempt to repair any sort of electronic device. This argument is flawed for many reasons. Most people are very capable of following directions and that is the most vital thing in most modern electronics repair. Furthermore, if companies are concerned with the safety of their products, then they should include information about how to identify and replace hazardous components.[2] Lastly, the Right to Repair movement recognizes that some forms of technology may be overly difficult for most people to repair. In these circumstances, the movement simply wishes to provide trained independent technicians with the appropriate information that will enable them to do their job. After all, in the age of mass information, it will quickly become obvious to someone doing Internet research which items can be repaired by ambitious amateurs and which ones require professional attention.

Currently, politicians across the country have recognized the strength of the arguments behind the Right to Repair and have come out in support of it. One of the strongest ongoing efforts is in Nebraska. Republican state senator Lydia Brasch has been one of the biggest proponents of digital right-to-repair law. Her fight started when her family’s $300,000 dollar combine broke down and it took a day to bring in an authorized technician with the necessary diagnostic equipment.[5] In critical times of harvest, farmers literally cannot afford to be without equipment that they are so heavily invested in. When major tech companies heard about Brasch’s bill, they praised her efforts and said that they were fine with her regulating the tractor business. They were under the impression that her efforts would be limited to farm equipment. However, they were sorely mistaken and Brasch was quoted as saying, “People here…we try to do the right thing.”[5]  In her opinion, it is not moral to grant special provisions to tech companies just because they have powerful lobbies. Presently, numerous states around the country have taken up the torch and support has arisen from diverse ideological bases. Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Wyoming have all proposed some form of digital right to repair legislation.

[1]We Have the Right to Repair Everything We Own.IFIXITORG. Web. 14 March. 2017.

[2]  Koebler, Jason. “How to Fix Everything.Motherboard. Vice, 24 November. 2015. Web. 16 March. 2017.

[3] Perkins, Bart. “Fight for your right to repair.” Computerworld. IDG Communications, 23 November 2015. Web. 16 March. 2017.

[4] Doctorow, Cory. “Three states considering “right to repair” laws that would decriminalize fixing your stuff.Boingboing. 23 January. 2017. Web. 21 March. 2017.

[5] Bray, Hiawatha. “You gotta fight for the right to repair your digital devices.The Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners, 23 February. 2017 Web. 22 March. 2017

Introducing Right to Repair and its Roots in the Automotive Industry

Extending the shelf life of products that use modern technology is a large part of the equation when it comes to the electronic sustainability movement. Unfortunately, this area is often found to be a source of trouble for consumers and independent repair shops. This is because many manufacturers make it impossible for consumers or independent repair technicians to fix their products. Sometimes this is done purposely and in other circumstances it is inadvertent. Regardless, this leaves consumers with few options and they are often forced to buy new or pay the monopolistic prices that select dealer or manufacturers have at their facilities. Fortunately, legislatures at the federal level and in many states have heard the voice of their constituents and right to repair bills have been introduced nationwide.

The root of the right of the repair movement can be traced to developments that have occurred within the automotive industry. In modern vehicles computers have come to control virtually every aspect of automobile’s vital systems. Therefore, vehicle repair has become a high-tech operation and computer diagnostic tools have in many ways have replaced traditional mechanical experience.[1] Currently, manufacturers serve as a door-keeper of repair information and only dispense this information to the selected dealers they do business with or at their own manufacturing facilities.[2]By 2001, this trend was well underway and in response the first Right to Repair bill was introduced in the United States. The stated goal of this bill was to end the unfair level of control that car manufacturers exercised over repair information.[2] In turn, the vehicle owner or independent repair facility would have the information necessary to diagnose, service, or repair their own vehicle.

While Right to Repair bills stagnated at the federal level, they have gained traction in many states. The biggest victory for the movement occurred in Massachusetts in 2012. The Massachusetts “Right to Repair” Initiative appeared on the general election and passed with 86% support from the state’s voters.[3] The Massachusetts law forced car manufacturers to provide independent repair shops with the same diagnostic tools they give authorized repairers. Consequently, by 2014 it had become obvious to the automotive industry that other states would pass similar legislation and they agreed to make the same data available nationwide by 2018.[4] Undoubtedly, this was a momentous shift in the automotive industry, but how does that impact the gadget repair industry? What if tech companies were forced to provide the same information?

[1]  Sturgis, Scott (January 26, 2007). “A Mechanic’s Laptop Makes Manual All But Obsolete”. The New York Times. Retrieved March 5, 2009.

[2] “Automotive Group Testifies Against Right to Repair Act Bill”. Autoparts Report.

[3] “Right to Repair Question 1 – 2012 Massachusetts Election Results”Boston Globe. November 8, 2012.

[4] http://www.autonews.com/article/20140125/RETAIL05/301279936/automakers-agree-to-right-to-repair-deal

Ethical Electronic Consumerism

This is an edited copy of the original article posted by Dr. Martin Wolske, a senior research scientist at the iSchool at the University of Illinois, published on

A few resources for ethical electronic consumerism:

There are a number of ethical implications surrounding our purchase and use of electronics. Much of this is beyond our direct control, but not all. And of those things that we cannot directly control, there is an increasing awareness that our spending can be leveraged to promote greater ethical choices by industry. The activities around reduction and reuse in the old adage “reduce, reuse, and recycle” take on new meaning as we begin to do deeper research on ethical electronic consumerism.

But to become a more ethical consumer, we first need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the underlying issues. We need to move beyond reacting to dramatic news stories of human rights or environmental tragedies towards understanding the environmental and social responsibility culture of the companies that manage some portion of the life-cycle of electronic products. The resources linked above can be useful in considering how transparent a company is, what their governance is like, what their policies are relating to these issues, and how they work with their supply chains to assure these policies extend beyond the immediate corporate entity.

I use the term ethical electronic consumerism as opposed to green electronics to indicate there are both environmental and human rights issues to be considered. In considering these, it is also helpful to consider the different aspects of the lifecycle of electronics, from initial mining of resources, to the production of the electronics, to their use, and eventually to the trashing or recycling of the products. For instance, we might consider:

  • What are the environmental and human health impacts of mining the raw materials? Within the U.S., a long fight was needed to drive the coal industry to provide much needed safety equipment to counter the health impacts of mining such as black lung disease.  But major tragedies strike and we find the policies are either insufficient or ignored.  Fracking has raised awareness for some within the U.S. of the environmental costs, with contaminated drinking supplies and rapidly emptying fresh water aquifers. These issues can be magnified many times over in the international mining of raw material for electronics.
  • What is the human rights cost of mining and producing electronics? The Apple/Foxconn case garnered considerable attention of the severe working conditions and low pay for Chinese workers producing parts for Apple products. More recently, news regarding a Brazilian lawsuit against Samsung for labor rights violations has been making news. But not much is spoken today in the U.S. about the extreme violence in the eastern Congolese as factions fight to control the mining of raw materials there. The violence bleeds over to the civilian farmers in the region, with murder, rape, forced labor and recruitment of child soldiers a common experience.
  • What is the environmental impact of electronics use? It is interesting to note that the savings in electricity resulting from the move to energy efficient appliances and homes over the last decades has been almost directly offset by the expansion in the number and hours of use of electronic devices within households. This is where we can have the most direct impact by choosing energy-efficient options, powering off and, when possible, unplugging unused devices, and limiting the number of devices we own and use.
  • What is the environmental and human rights impact of electronic waste disposal? Many devices end up in landfills where the toxins contained within the electronic devices begins to run off into the surrounding area. Those that are recycled, though, often are instead eventually shipped overseas where workers work in hazardous conditions with little or no protective equipment to extract the valuable raw materials that are then reused to produce new electronic equipment. We can have a direct impact here, too. First, we should carefully consider whether we need to replace an existing technology in the first place. Second, if we do need to upgrade, is it possible for the device to see reuse by someone else? Either way, we can keep that device out of the hands of a recycling and decrease the environmental impact of producing a new item for a bit longer. The cost of recycling along with the cost of producing a new item may very well be greater than the cost of continuing to use an electronic device even if it is less energy efficient than newer products.

Choosing to live completely off-grid is rarely possible or even advisable. But I am increasingly hearing a strong case made that we can be even more effective if we use our purchasing dollars to leverage change within the various industries. Technologies exist that minimize the use of toxic chemicals and blood minerals within electronics, but aren’t being widely used yet because there’s not a clear economic incentive. Large industries subcontract with many smaller companies to produce components and have demonstrated in several cases that they can leverage their purchasing power to require those smaller companies to follow basic human rights practices, but those larger companies only tend to do so if they have an economic incentive. Indeed, sometimes they may find the expedient thing is to minimize bad press and abandon the small companies. But they can have the greatest impact sometimes by staying and working with the small company to bring about change. While a slower and potentially less popular path, it is a path that has some of the greatest potential for change.

If we consumers, individually and on behalf of the organizations for which we recommend or make purchases, begin using some of the resources available (some are linked below) to understand the issues involved and how companies are performing in these various domains, then we can begin using our dollars to push for change. But we need to do so in a way that recognizes the complexities involved and that builds towards the long arc of justice and not just quick, feel-good fixes that may ultimately have long-term negative consequences for those who are out of site but most directly impacted by such changes. For instance, perhaps we should look towards supporting with our purchases a company that stays with certain supply companies and works with them over a period of months and years to reform worker rights and environmental impact at the company and in the region even if in the short term they appear to be supporting a corporately unethical supplier.

History can be such a great teacher. East St. Louis, IL, along with the surrounding small municipalities, provide an example of industrial suburbs – a place that owes it’s existence largely to one or a few manufacturers that crossed just over state lines to create a municipal government focused on maximizing profits when in the mid-1800’s large city governments began to crack down on the environmental and human rights impacts of those companies. One of those companies, American Zinc, produced materials that were instrumental in the early electronics industry. Like many industrial suburbs, the years of production created a toxic health environment for both workers and nearby residents. Further, when the industries left in the mid-1960’s, they left behind sites and whole neighborhoods with environmental contamination. But while this region provided the materials critical to the development of modern electronics, sadly the region remains significantly underserved by the digital age, with no or poor broadband service, many households without computers, and often low digital literacies.

Today the industrial suburbs no longer are created across state lines, but instead industries do much of their dirty work farther out of site. We speak of addressing the divide between those who have technology and those who do not. But in becoming ethical consumers, we can take a more proactive stance in working to stop the creation of communities that will face long-term consequences because of the environmental and human rights violations occurring today. If we are willing to do the work required to become informed and to act upon that information.

A few stories about the environmental and human rights impact of electronics:

Thanks to Colin Rhinesmith for introducing me to these issues and compiling these stories for the Introduction to Networked Systems course we co-taught Spring 2013. The lecture he recorded can be found at:

http://cmediachange.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/lis451_environmental_impacts.mov