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An alternative to junking that broken appliance

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At Repair Café events, handy volunteers help their less-skilled neighbors. The events are part of a repair movement spreading around the world, at a time when the global trash pile is growing exponentially.

Jon Canchola and Chris Kline work on a broken Keurig coffee maker at a Repair Café event in Stow, Mass.
LONNIE SHEKHTMAN/THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
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Terry Manning learned how to sew in junior high school, and she now finds herself fixing broken zippers and other clothing mishaps for her neighbors. Many people don’t know how to sew, observes Ms. Manning, who is in her late 80s. “Men especially,” she notes.

On a recent Saturday, Manning ran a sewing station at an event in Stow, Mass., where she and others repaired household and personal items free of charge for anyone who showed up. The event was part of the global Repair Café movement, which brings together handy volunteers and their less-skilled neighbors who are saddled with damaged toasters and lamps, as well as clothes that would benefit from a needle and thread.

In Stow, Manning was fixing the too-big shoulders on a man’s shirt. She mused, “I don’t know if [schools offer] today what they had years ago: Girls took sewing, boys took woodworking. Do they still do this?”

As Manning has observed, mending clothes seems to have fallen out of favor. This is in part because of the rise of “fast fashion,” a trend in which clothing is made quickly and inexpensively and is ultimately disposable. Also, electronics and household appliances have become easier and often cheaper to replace than to fix. So it’s no wonder that fewer people can repair things. But a big problem is lurking behind these seemingly innocuous developments: Too many broken things end up in landfills. Electronics, in particular, leach heavy metals and toxic chemicals into the ground, and if they're incinerated, they spew harmful substances into the air.

And the world’s trash pile is growing exponentially. In the United States, municipalities generated 71 percent more waste in 2014 than they did in 1980, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. City dwellers worldwide will produce about three times as much waste in 2100 as they did in 2013, according to projections by a former World Bank specialist and others.

To people like Martine Postma, this is unsettling – and unnecessary.

“I started to think about, Why do people throw away so much?” says Ms. Postma, a former journalist in Amsterdam. “I think deep down everyone knows it’s not normal to throw an item away when it breaks.”

So Postma launched the Repair Café in Amsterdam in 2009. The simple concept started to spread, inspiring organizers from Stow to Antwerp, Belgium, to Baku, Azerbaijan. In fact, there are now about 1,300 sites associated with what has become Postma’s nonprofit Repair Café Foundation.

Although the foundation doesn’t fund local events, it offers an instruction manual in seven languages for those who want to set up events. Fixers bring their own tools to the events, while snacks and coffee are funded through donations.

“I wanted to make repair attractive once more,” Postma says.

In Stow, the event was organized by the town’s Council on Aging and the Rotary Club of Nashoba Valley. Volunteer fixers – many of whom are engineers or artists, either currently working or retired – operated repair stations, each with a specialty such as electronics, clothing, or knife sharpening.

Jon Canchola and Chris Kline, an information technology specialist and a civil engineer, respectively, are neighbors from the nearby town of Maynard (they want to start a repair event there). They’ve volunteered in Stow because they love to tinker, they say, and because they know that replacing broken things is too expensive for some people.

“We both come from working-class families where it’s not like you can go out and replace everything,” Mr. Canchola says.

At Stow’s Repair Café in April, the two were disassembling a broken Keurig coffee maker. “Looks like there’s a valve not working,” diagnosed Canchola, while he and Mr. Kline tended to the apparatus lying in front of them, Kline with a headlamp on, almost as if they were two surgeons.

The owner of the coffee maker, Lisa Moore, hovered nearby. The Keurig was a Christmas gift from her children, and she had already spent $60 on descaling products in an attempt to fix it. Canchola and Kline were her last hope before trashing the device.

In case the repair didn’t work out, Ms. Moore did some math out loud to weigh the alternative: “I have a $20 coupon, and they’re on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond for $100, so I can get a new one for $80, but I’ve already spent $60.”

Canchola and Kline were able to fix the Keurig machine, but it was one of the most complicated items they’ve worked on, they said, partly because it was hard to open up.

High-tech coffee makers are among many consumer products, including smartphones, laptops, and cars, that are designed to make repair difficult, if not impossible, Postma says. For example, some manufacturers of products with embedded software – which include various household items – don’t share repair information, claiming it’s proprietary.

“I think that’s purposely done by manufacturers because it’s in their interest that we buy new stuff,” Postma says. “If you want to have a sustainable society, you should promote repair.”

Postma says the next chapter for her foundation is to push manufacturers to make things easier to fix. One way for companies to do this, she says, is to make repair manuals available to customers.

Such ideas are part of a repair movement spreading around the world. On Jan. 1, Sweden cut the tax rate on repairs to appliances, bicycles, household linen, clothes, leather goods, and shoes from 25 to 12 percent. “I believe there is a shift in view in Sweden at the moment,” Per Bolund, Sweden’s minister for Financial Markets and Consumer Affairs, told the Guardian last September. “There is an increased knowledge that we need to make our things last longer in order to reduce materials’ consumption.”

Last year, a law took effect in France that requires manufacturers to include on their product labels information about how long spare parts will be available.

The repair movement in the US is happening on the state level, with 11 bills pending in states including New York, Tennessee, Illinois, and Wyoming, according to the Repair Association, an advocacy group. These bills call on manufacturers of digital products to offer consumers and independent repair shops the same tools, parts, and repair information that they make available to their own, authorized repair shops. The idea is to increase competition in repair and, thus, lower costs for consumers.

The model for the recent spate of legislation is a 2012 Massachusetts law that required carmakers to make the repair information that they give their dealers available to independent repair shops. The law spurred automakers to make repair information available to repair shops nationwide.