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Volunteers help to fix a broken light fixture at a Repair Café in Colorado Springs, Colorado  |  Credit: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, Ltd.

Screwed. Why DIY Repairs Are So Difficult

What to do when stuff breaks? From a toaster to a tablet, it's often less frustrating and more tantalizing to just buy something new—but a growing number of people around the world want you to pull up to a table at a Repair Café instead.

By Frani Halperin, Executive Producer
Published: 22 Oct 2023 | © H2O Media, Ltd.

Up until today, a Hoover vacuum cleaner had been sitting in my basement for years after it started emitting an awful burning smell when I used it. I had planned to get it fixed—one of these days—but then I heard about something called “Repair Cafés.”

Repair Cafés were started by a Dutch artist in 2007, and as the name implies, it’s a place where people gather to fix stuff. It may or may not have food and drink, but it’s definitely a setting to share ideas—from how to mend a garment to getting a broken toaster cooking again.

Since its righteous beginnings in the Netherlands, the idea has spread around the globe, where kids to retirees meet to offer—or be offered—advice on how to fix items from lamps and toys to furniture and clothing.

That’s the scene today in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on an early fall weekend, where the Pikes Peak Library District is sponsoring a Repair Café at a small industrial building just west of downtown. People have various reasons for attending this free and lively event. Many want to prevent stuff from going to landfills, some want to preserve objects with sentimental value, and others, who’ve never picked up a screwdriver in their lives, want to learn new skills.

When a person arrives with an item, they are matched with experts whose skills range from electronics and carpentry to engineering and textiles. For example, says Dustin Booth, manager with the Library District, “If you have a shirt that needs to be sewed, we send you over to the people who have the sewing machine.”

When I walk into the building with my vacuum, I get paired with Drew Johnson—one of the tens of thousands of volunteers who offer their expertise free of charge at the nearly 3,000 Repair Cafés worldwide. I start by giving him some background on my ailing machine and ask about first steps.

Johnson replies, with the confidence of someone who has seen the inner workings of many an appliance, “You eat the elephant one bite at a time. So, we'll plug it in and see the lack of suction and go from there.”

We start up the vacuum, and it groans, suggesting it’s seen better days.  When I remind Johnson that it emitted a burning smell, he postulates that it could be a rubber band or something gumming up the works.  So, the next step he says, is to remove the cover and investigate.

<p>Drew Johnson, an expert volunteer, discovers a string of braided plastic that had caused a vacuum cleaner to malfunction at a Repair Café in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  |  <em>Credit: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, Ltd.</em></p>

It doesn’t take long before he finds the culprit, a braided string of plastic maybe from a toy, that had wound itself around the brush. While I am jubilant at breathing new life into my machine, not all repairs are that easy. Over at the next table, Joe Slater and his wife are working with a volunteer to fix three items they brought in—an iron, a lamp, and a soap dispenser.

While they got help repairing their light fixture, no such luck with the soap dispenser. Slater says, “The gentleman here just explained to me that because of what the plastic is made of, it won't adhere to just any glue, has to be a special glue.”

Special glue? Therein lies a problem that Repair Cafés encounter. More and more, consumer goods are made with electronics or specialty parts that make DIY repairs challenging. Earlier this afternoon, Johnson had been prevented from fixing a lamp because it had proprietary screws. It’s a frustration that a movement called the “Right to Repair” is working to address.

Right to Repair

Right to Repair means “you bought it, you own it. You should be able to fix it on your own terms,” says Nathan Proctor, the senior Right to Repair campaign director for the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), which is part of the Right to Repair coalition, comprised of several organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumer Reports.

The coalition has been working on legislation, mostly at the state level, to require manufacturers to provide open access to the “parts, tools, and information” they have to do repairs. Versions of Right to Repair laws have been passed in five states, including Colorado, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York. Colorado’s law covers farm equipment and wheelchairs, while Minnesota’s law, currently the broadest, pertains to devices like phones, laptops, appliances, and other equipment. California’s legislation was recently signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 10.

“It causes a lot of problems when you can't fix something,” Proctor explains.  “This came to light during the first few months of COVID because they couldn't fix the ventilators they were getting from the national stockpile because of proprietary restrictions that manufacturers put in place.”

The growing amount of electronics in consumer goods is one reason that items from coffeemakers and dishwashers to toys and tablets are hard to repair on your own. “If it has a microchip in it, there are problems trying to fix it,” Proctor says, adding that companies are also designing products that require specialized tools without which repair is difficult or impossible. “And increasingly, those tools are software tools.”

The barriers to fixing items with electronics has resulted in e-waste becoming the fastest part of our waste stream because tossing items can be easier—and often cheaper—than trying to fix them.  According to Proctor, “Americans get rid of some 416,000 cell phones every day. If Americans use their cell phones for one year longer, on average, I calculated that it would have the same benefits to the climate as taking 636,000 cars off the road.” He says it’s because of the tremendous amount of emissions that are produced during the production and manufacturing phases, not to mention the hundreds of gallons of water used in mining rare earth metals that are needed for phones.

“They Don’t Make Things Like They Used To”

It’s an adage that many of us have likely uttered when looking at new appliances that have plastic, and often nonstandard, parts intentionally produced with “planned obsolescence.” According to the financial institution CapitalOne, which writes in favor of Right to Repair and Repair Cafés, manufacturers argue that they are responding to consumer demand and that the strategy drives innovation. Increasingly, Proctor says, Right to Repair is also about getting back to a place where companies make products that last longer.

<p>Volunteers collaborate to fix a broken toy car at a Repair Café in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  |  <em>Credit: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, Ltd.</em></p>Countering our appetite for disposable goods that just end up in landfills is one reason that Morgan Pfaelzer is at the Colorado Springs event. She brought a non-functioning toy car big enough for her son to ride in.  “The culture of…it's cheaper just to go to Walmart and buy a new one. Why bother fixing it?” Pfaelzer bemoans the plastic and the amount of resources that go into making new products that’s not taken into consideration. “We don't have to throw everything away. We can fix it.”

That can-do attitude is pervasive at today’s event, where the toy car has become the centerpiece with several of the volunteers taking a crack at fixing it, so much so you would think the vehicle would operate just off everyone’s enthusiasm alone. Ultimately, through teamwork, they did get it running.

It usually turns out to be a fairly simple fix, Pfaelzer says, adding that Repair Cafés are also about community, “bringing people together, and everybody gets joy out of it.”

As the event winds down and the youngster motors out of the building in his now functioning toy jeep, if the Right to Repair movement grows, he might one day live in a world where products are more durable and kinder to the planet. And when things inevitably do break, he can have fun putting it back together again—perhaps using a skill he learned at a Repair Café. 💧

This story was produced as a part of a series by KGNU Community Radio on zero waste.