Leave it to the Dutch, who throw away only 3 percent of their municipal waste into landfills, to come up with a socially appealing innovation that does even more to reduce waste:  the neighborhood Repair Cafe!  As described in today’s NYT, volunteers with a talent for fixing things come together several times a month to repair anyone’s broken household items for free.  This includes lamps, irons, suitcases, toasters, coffee makers and even an electric organ on one occasion. 

What began in a theater foyer has now moved to a community center and spawned similar Repair Cafes throughout the Netherlands. The Repair Cafe helps fixers with time on their hands connect with people who don’t have much money or personal skills to repair their broken household items. The whole enterprise saves people money, builds community and reduces gratuitous consumption. 

Reporter Ilvy Nijokiktijien describes how the Repair Cafe idea got its start:

“In Europe, we throw out so many things,” said Martine Postma, a former journalist who came up with the concept after the birth of her second child led her to think more about the environment. “It’s a shame, because the things we throw away are usually not that broken. There are more and more people in the world, and we can’t keep handling things the way we do.

“I had the feeling I wanted to do something, not just write about it,” she said. But she was troubled by the question: “How do you try to do this as a normal person in your daily life?”

Postma was inspired by a design exhibit  hosted by Platform21, a design studio in Amsterdam, which had showcased the “creative, cultural and economic benefits of repairing and recycling.”  Postma said:  “Sustainability discussions are often about ideals, about what could be.  After a certain number of workshops on how to grow your own mushrooms, people get tired. This is very hands on, very concrete. It’s about doing something together, in the here and now.”

I’m much inspired by the Repair Cafes!  But it also makes me feel a bit sad.  Despite some modest support from the Dutch government, the idea seems so grossly under-funded and  grassroots when compared to the well-oiled apparatus of designed-in obsolescence that drives the global economy.  Countless products these days are deliberately designed to wear out and be replaced, or require costly proprietary parts (instead of generic doo-hickeys) in order to fix.  Corporate marketing departments surely don’t want to encourage people to develop a sense of thrifty self-reliance and extend the durability of their products.  It might depress sales and Gross National Product! 

Still, if the ethic of self-sufficiency and post-consumerist sustainability is ever going to take root, it needs to start somewhere – and the most logical place will not be some government agency, foundation or corporation.  It will start among commoners who see the need, care about the environment and take the initiative to do something themselves, as Ms. Postma did.  And their examples will inspire others to emulate and innovate further.  

With that in mind, Platform21 developed a ten-point Repair Manifesto outlining the virtues of repairing things.  It has been downloaded a million times.

Of course, the DIY repair projects must be seen as part of a much larger DIY movement, as exemplified by open source software, Maker culture, peer production projects, and other grassroots phenomena.  While these projects may be small in absolute terms, the ethic is growing stronger and more widespread, if only because of the recession.

I am reminded of one the more enduring and ingenious DIY enterprises at the urban level, City Repair of Portland, Oregon. This enterprising effort operates several projects to help people take charge of their own lives and neighborhoods. City Repair runs a “ReWare Upcycle Craft Market,” for example, which it describes as “a place where the whole community can gather to celebrate and cultivate a post-consumption culture of thrifting, reducing, reusing, recycling and upcycling!  Upcyling is the transformation of products of crippled functionality into products of higher quality and artistic value.  Come be a thread in the fabric with which we can design a new paradigm and turn trash into treasures!”

City Repair also has an inspiring “Depave” project that works with area communities to remove unnecessary concrete and asphalt from the cityscape.  The idea is to increase the amount of land available for community gardens, wildlife habitats, and native vegetation, and to prevent stormwater runoff that contains asphalt pollution and to help improve neighborhood plants and landscapes.

City repair, product repair, environmental repair, self-repair — it’s all going to start with us, on the ground, beyond the market and state.  Then let the battle for hearts and minds begin.