When I was a kid, I used to spend hours in my grandfather’s workshop. I remember watching with awe as he wielded power tools or worked wood. It was masterful. He was masterful: the way he could kindle life back into long dead machines. Or the way he could coax usefulness out of rusty sprockets, wood scraps, and old pipes salvaged from a trash heap.
In many ways, my grandfather was typical of a generation haunted by the shadow of the Great Depression. Out of necessity, people like my grandfather eked every bit of usefulness from what little they had. They drove their cars into the ground, hitched them back together with baling wire, and kept driving for another 100,000 miles. They taught their children how to patch their tires and patch their jeans. Waste not, want not. Make do, and mend.
Flash forward to the age of disposable abundance and attitudes towards waste have changed dramatically. So much so, that it’s easy to imagine Americans have always been partial to novelty waste-making—that we were always mainlining newer, cheaper, single-use goods.
No matter how natural it feels to throw something away, wastefulness is not part of the human condition. Our attitudes were created. Slowly. Marketing campaign by marketing campaign. Product by product.
“Initially, Americans bucked against disposability. Historian Susan Strasser recounts riots by soldiers in train stations in 1917 when the communal tin cup for water was replaced with disposable paper cups. Such waste was seen as abhorrent. Even users of the most disposable of disposables—feminine sanitary napkins—had to be taught how to throw away their Kotex,” writes Max Liboiron on Discard Studies.
By the late ‘60s, Americans were so conditioned to waste that they didn’t think twice about tossing plastic food containers into the trash. That’s just where plastic went. 50 years after that, and now we don’t think twice about throwing away things that are far more complex. Things that—with an completely commonplace combination of curiosity, information, and know-how—could be fixed: a flat screen TV with a blown capacitor, a lamp with a pinched wire, a smartphone with a dead battery.
Given our generational miseducation, it makes sense that the people leading the burgeoning Fixer movement aren’t curious Millennials or savvy Gen-Xers. Of course, some of them are—but most of the people who run and volunteer at Repair Cafés are retirees. A recent survey of Repair Cafés found that 35% of respondees (founders, organizers, and volunteer fixers alike) were between 55-65. About 21% were over 65.
They’re people like my grandfather, who never took “broken” for an answer. Or Boomers who were taught basic mechanical and electrical skills by their parents. And like their parents before them, Repair Café volunteers are teaching one more generation how to fix things. More than that, they’re passing on a baton of self-sufficiency and conservation that was passed to them decades ago.
And they’re doing a remarkably good job at it. Under their stewardship, Repair Cafés have become a global phenomenon. The very first Repair Café was held by Martine Potsma in Amsterdam in 2009. Five years later, and there are now over 400 different Repair Cafés operating in 14 different countries—from Brazil to Lichtenstein.
“Interim findings suggest that volunteers at Repair Café are most strongly motivated to take part largely because of what they can do for others,” a report on the survey reads. “Namely their desire to help others live more sustainably, to provide a valuable service to the community, and to help improve product reparability and longevity.”
Sounds like a mighty fine goal to us.
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