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Repair, reuse, recycle: how Britain is tackling throwaway culture

When Anne Fraser notices a rip in an item of clothing, she doesn’t throw it away and buy a new one. Instead, she gets out her sewing kit and fixes it. 

Fraser is part of a global movement waging a war against throwaway culture. She volunteers as a fixer at one of Bristol’s repair cafes, where volunteers with skills such as sewing, technology or electrical engineering get together to offer their services once a month to people who have broken items. Locals can bring along anything from broken toasters to bikes to ripped clothes to be mended, and it’s all for free. 

The concept of Repair Cafes was started by Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2009, who had become frustrated with the developed world’s throwaway culture. She began producing a guide for her community with tips on how to produce less waste – mainly by fixing or repairing things that would have otherwise gone into the bin. The idea spread, and there are now an estimated 1,500 Repair Cafés located in 33 countries.

While creating a culture of mending and recycling has obvious positives like saving money, there are “unconsidered benefits”, Fraser says, like “networking for people who are lonelier, and it’s intergenerational, older people learning from younger people and visa-versa”. 

The range of products and the extent of damage varies from month to month. Fraser can be replacing buttons on shirts while another volunteer shows a client how to recover their emails, or change a fuse. “It’s empowering people to repair these items, and showing them that repairing and fixing is ok,” she says. 

It also shows how we can change our consumption habits and reduce how much we throw away. From 1970 to 2010, humans’ consumption of natural resources more than tripled. The overconsumption of energy, water and raw materials increases air pollution and contributes to climate change.

A study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in 2016 found household consumption, from food to clothes, is responsible for up to 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50-80% of total land, material, and water use.

Campaigners have called for a greater emphasis on waste prevention in the UK. An estimated 300,000 tonnes of clothing was sent to landfill in the UK in 2016, and the average lifespan of a piece of clothing in the UK is just over three years. “We urgently need to tackle our throwaway culture - including better product design, more re-use, and a phase out of plastic - to ensure that far less waste is created in the first place,” said Friends of the Earth’s waste campaigner Julian Kirby. 

In 2018, repair cafes around the world prevented an estimated 350,000 products going to waste, saving 8.5 million kilos of CO2. During an average meeting, around 18 objects are successfully repaired. 

“When you think about what’s involved in the production, the water, the fuel, and all the waste… all the volunteers are very aware of that,” Fraser says. 

She hopes the people coming to the repair cafes are becoming more aware too. “Often you find people interested in how it is repaired go from not wanting to open something up to be empowered to do that so the next time, and they might take a screwdriver to it themselves.” 

Cerys Jones, from the team organising repair cafes in Wales, has seen attitudes towards fixing and mending increase positively in recent years. “I have massive hope. We are about to go through huge amounts of change as a society. Repair cafes are more popular, which is evidence that we need them, to keep people from chucking things away,” she says.