Frankfurt’s repair cafés fight back against ‘planned obsolescence’

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Waste management & recycling updates

“It’s been in the cellar for five years now,” Sandra (not her real name) tells me, as she removes a black coffee machine from her bag. “We had bought a more sophisticated one, but my husband and I recently divorced, and he took it with him”.

The device, like her relationship, has long been broken, and now emits nothing but a hiss of steam when plugged in. But instead of discarding it, Sandra has brought the appliance to a community centre in Frankfurt, which is hosting its quarterly “Repair Cafe”. She became aware of the phenomenon — now in 36 countries across the world, and particularly widespread in DIY-loving Germany — through an article in a local paper. 

Started in 2009 by Martine Postma, a Dutch journalist and environmentalist who “wanted to change people’s behaviour”, repair cafés are events held by an informal network of volunteers around the globe who give their time to mend devices that would otherwise end up on the scrapheap. The service is free and, depending on the expertise of the volunteers, attendees can bring items from computers and household appliances, to sweaters and socks that need darning.

On a sunny September evening, patrons bring in malfunctioning LED lights, hair dryers, stereos and kettles. A team of six (mostly) retirees, who have brought their own tools, spend the next three hours attempting to bring the devices back to life. Their success rate, they say, hovers around 60 per cent.

There are now more than 1,500 such “cafés” around the world — 15 in Frankfurt alone. The initiative, which Postma dubs “First-Aid for broken products”, has helped repair more than 1m devices worldwide, according to calculations by the non-profit organisation she founded. 

But these efforts are a drop in the ocean. So-called “E-waste” is the fastest growing domestic waste segment around the globe, having expanded by more than a fifth in just five years. Just over 17 per cent of it is recycled, on average (although poorer countries discard far less and recycle more). Unlike with other forms of waste, the vast majority of it comes from households, not businesses. 

It’s not so much that people don’t want to get more use from their devices, I learn at the café, but that fixing them can be time-consuming and, importantly, much more expensive than simply buying a replacement. 

“The biggest problem is opening [them],” says Herwig, a former banker in his late fifties who is a regular volunteer. Devices made before the 1980s, when globalisation began to gather pace, are far easier to repair, he explains, because they are held together by screws. Newer devices are often glued together to save on manufacturing costs, and are irreparably damaged when prised apart. 

His fellow volunteers have tales that further illustrate the problem. Werner, 72, says replacement parts are becoming harder to find. He spent weeks chasing a component for a roller blind from a business with no obvious point of contact for customers. “It’s just not in the interest of companies to provide [the parts],” he says. 

Recently, governments have been taking note. Joe Biden signed an executive order in July giving owners the “right to repair” their own vehicles without voiding warranties. The UK introduced rules that legally require manufacturers to make spare parts available, while the European parliament has called for similar regulations to govern the sales of smartphones and laptops.

But as the organisers of the Frankfurt Repair Cafe explain, the biggest challenge is the so-called “planned obsolescence” that underpins many manufacturers’ business models in a world of razor-thin profit margins for consumer products. Their future profitability, especially in mature markets, depends on repeat purchases.

Sandra’s coffee machine, it turns out, can be easily fixed. An internal plastic tube, held together with cable fasteners, is filled with gunk. A wire brush is deployed, and within an hour, she leaves with a revived appliance. Manufacturers should be asking themselves how long they can leave this simple, waste-reducing service to volunteers.

joe.miller@ft.com

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