Fixing is in my blood. It comes from an insatiable curiosity about how things work, be they black holes and the Big Bang, or why things stop working, like the kitchen drawer that suddenly won’t close. Quantum physics and General Relativity are beyond me, but I sorted out the kitchen drawer after close inspection. In between there is a huge range of things, both fascinating and (often) fixable.
This is Week 9 of our #CountdowntoCOP campaign, encouraging people to sign up for one or more of the 16 Count Us In steps. We will have a guest blog each week until November’s UK-hosted COP, focusing on one of these 16 steps.
This week’s blog, on the step ‘Repair and Reuse’, is from expert fixer, Philip le Riche, who has run countless Restart Parties, keeping hundreds of fixed items out of landfill.
Why do I love to repair things?
It all started when, still at infant school, I was given a few batteries, bulbs, and bits of wire which I quickly learned to connect together. Not many years later I progressed to a crystal set which my father and I built. I messed with electronics throughout my teens, and unsurprisingly, took a degree in Electronic Engineering. For most of my life I’ve had some electronic project or other on the go. And if anything broke, my instinct was always to try and fix it.
Why do we have such a turnover of electrical and electronic goods?
Partly it’s because many devices are no longer built to last, but built to a price. On the other hand our toaster, a wedding present in 1979, is still giving daily service after 42 years.
Another reason is that spare parts and service manuals are often unavailable or exorbitantly priced, or essential security updates are no longer available. Some manufacturers, whilst trumpeting their green credentials in fact do all they can through legal, commercial and technical means to stifle the independent repair sector.
The Right to Repair movement was born in the US out of the frustration of farmers, often of necessity very practical folk, prevented from repairing their farm machinery. Right to repair legislation is often hotly contested by manufacturers, using specious arguments about safety and quality, indeed, recent legislation in the UK has been so watered down as to have little practical effect. The Restart Project has been at the forefront of campaigning.
The Restart Project and Restart Parties
When I retired I got more heavily into fixing. Looking around for a way to usefully employ my new found freedom, I came across the Restart Project. Their mission is to fix our relationship with electronics by enabling people to fix stuff instead of throwing it away. Watch the one minute Restart Code here. Not knowing very much what to expect, I attended my first “Restart Party” in Kentish Town Community Centre and found a real buzz: members of the public with their broken electrical and electronic items, and a dedicated group of skilled amateur fixers assisting them.
I immediately caught the bug and have since attended dozens of similar events. One of the fascinations is that you never know what challenges you’re going to be faced with. Perhaps the most unusual was a dentist who brought along his machine for filling root canals! (Unfortunately it needed a new transformer which we couldn’t help him with on the spot.)
With more familiar items we often have a good success rate.
Table lamps and headphones we can almost always fix, or suggest where to get spare fittings. Radios, cameras, TVs and monitors, battery operated toys, musical keyboards, paper shredders and small kitchen, household or garden appliances are just a few of the many and varied items we’ve had success with. We see many laptops which, with suitable attention, could still give a number of years’ service.
As well as electricals, some repair events also cater for fabrics, bikes and furniture. The same curiosity about how things are put together will take you far with these too. Though not my speciality, I was thus able to replace the zip in my gardening anorak and repair a trouser pocket! If you want to learn how to mend clothes, Sustainable St Albans has an excellent page on Sustainable Fashion to help you get started, and YouTube is your friend!
The impact of repairs
Beyond the satisfaction of fixing something and seeing the delight on the owner’s face when you’ve done so, fixing helps reduce the mountains of e-waste produced every year, and the carbon footprint of replacing all those items.
During the 2021 lockdown, as one of a group of volunteers with local charity Computer Friendly, we refurbished many donated laptops for disadvantaged children. We estimated that manufacture of new replacement devices would have generated some 88,000kg of CO2, the equivalent of driving 460,000 miles or taking 90 return transatlantic flights!
How you can learn to make repairs
You might think that all this is beyond you, but why not have a go? There are lots of resources online to help you.
Screws are there to be undone, with just a little care and maybe an egg box to keep them organised. But you will do well to get a universal screwdriver with a good range of interchangeable bits. Just remember to unplug a mains device before starting, then be prepared to be amazed at what you find inside!
For the know-how, the Internet is your friend. Search for the make and model of your device with the problem appended, e.g. “disassembly” or “replace battery”. For hints and tips on a wide range of types of device, as well as basic theory, the Restart Wiki assumes no prior knowledge and provides a wealth of information.
Restart Parties and Repair Cafés are an excellent way of learning about repair and gaining confidence as well as getting your stuff fixed. Though suspended during the pandemic, they are held by various easily reached groups in London and one in Bedford, with more are springing up. Upcoming events are advertised by The Restart Project. To start one locally we mainly need a small but keen group to organise it. Could that be you? Fixers can be found.
What individuals can do
- Learn to make simple repairs.
- The Restart Wiki contains a wealth of information, from basic theory and essential tools to advice about specific types of device.
- You can find loads of resources to help you get started on the Sustainable St Albans “Repair and Reuse” resource page.
- Support the repair sector whenever you can. It provides good jobs as well as helping save the planet. Search online.
- Offer your old smartphone, tablet or laptop on eBay, Freegle or Freecycle, even if broken, instead of leaving it in the bottom of a cupboard. But wipe your personal data first.
- Consider buying independently but reliably refurbished devices rather than new, and save money! Do you really need the very latest model?
- Recycle your devices, but only as a last resort. Recovering scarce raw materials can be difficult and expensive, but is better than landfill.
Remember every item you repair or reuse is progress towards a more sustainable future, and don’t forget to spread the word.
Join in with #CountdownToCOP today
It’s easy to join in with #CountdownToCOP. Environmental groups of St Albans District have come together to set up the St Albans Climate Action Network who are hosting their own special St Albans District Count Us In page. Simply visit the page, explore the 16 steps and pledge to take one step by choosing “Take a Step”. When you register, tick that you are part of the “St Albans Climate Network” to have your step counted on the St Albans page.
Join in today and use Philip’s inspiring advice to choose the “Repair and Reuse” Step as your pledge.
You can track the carbon impact of your own actions. As more people join, we will all see our cumulative efforts across St Albans, Harpenden and the villages.
We will have a blog every Sunday until the international climate talks in November, COP26. Each blog will focus on one of the 16 steps. Look out for next week’s blog on “dialing it down” by Ian Yenney.