All photographs above are from the unbroken solutions exhibition, by Mark Phillips.
The UK is currently one of the largest producers per capita of household electrical and electronic waste (or e-waste) in the world. When broken or unwanted electronics are dumped in landfill, toxic substances like lead and mercury can leach into soil and water. This, and more, formed part of the discussion from an illuminating panel at the Climate Centre on November 15th, during the launch of ‘unbroken solutions’, an exhibition of images of repair around the world by photographer Mark Phillips. (https://unbroken.solutions)
Fiona Dear, co-director of the Restart Project, Dermot Jones, head of The Camden Fixing Factory, and Mark Phillips talked through ways of addressing e-waste, given its status as the fastest growing waste stream. “We produce well over 50 million tonnes every year, the same weight as the Great Wall of China, which means we lose substantial amounts of the resource and energy used in production, as well as rare materials such as the lithium in batteries, a mineral we will need for clean energy,” points out Dear.
More than 50 percent of the energy produced by an electronic item takes place during manufacture; and up to 80 percent with computers and laptops. “If we could keep things for longer, it would make a difference,” said Dear. “Recycling should be a last resort, especially with electronics.” Riding off the back of hit shows such as The Repair Shop, the concept of fixing things is popular (“People don’t like throwing stuff away,” says Fiona); the problem is, “it’s not translating into behaviour.”
Cultural barriers stand in the way. Advertising encourages a use-chuck-buy again mentality. And in the age of planned obsolescence, new stuff can come up cheaper than repairing old. Meanwhile, for the uninitiated, electronics feel intimidating. “People are worried about breaking stuff and safety issues, plus things simply aren’t made to be repaired [any more],” says Dear. Odd or hidden screws, for example, mean items are difficult to get into. Repair options are few and far between - and less repair means we’re losing the skills. “There’s a nationwide shortage of repairers,” says Dear.
The Restart Project campaigns vigorously for the right to repair. “There’s a big job to do to encourage people to think differently, to bring repair front of mind,” says Dear. The charity has teamed up with environmental campaign group Possible to launch two Fixing Factories, led by Dermot Jones. The Brent site, located in a re-use and recycling centre, collects laptops, of which the best are repaired and sent out to beneficiaries, often those on the “other side of the digital divide. Helping people get online helps them not to be excluded from society,” says Jones.
The second, the Camden Fixing Factory, is a repair shop. “Repair shops faded away,” says Jones. “The Camden site reimagines the old repair shop while creating new jobs and offering training.” Word got around after the launch in October. “Traders from Queens Crescent Market, for example, brings all sorts of stuff to us like heaters. It’s important to be embedded in the community. We’re there to unearth skills that already exist.” The team includes retired people with electronic skills, satellite engineers, “people who are already fixing.”
Every Tuesday, people can have a go at repairing things. “If you want to take a circuit board and reverse engineer it because you want to solve this problem, there’s enthusiasm for the challenge,” says Jones. “Plus we’re gathering data. We take on repairs that aren’t financially viable to find out how long it takes to repair something that’s super cheap. It’s an investigation towards developing sustainable models. We’re in a world where things aren’t designed to be fixed so we have to make manufacturers realise they have to make things better.”
The factory takes everything, from toasters to laptops. Significantly, about a third of items are simple fixes, while only about 5 percent are high level fixes. “That fills me with optimism,” admits Jones. “All those thoughts we have, that it’s too expensive to fix, etc: we’re going to challenge those ideas and see what comes out the other side.” The Factory is also looking at artistic responses to items. “If we can make it look better, it’ll change the narrative,” says Jones.
The vision is to develop a model that people can copy. says Jones. “Crucially, if we can get the training up and produce a workforce to fix things, that would be a huge success. The factory is about positivity and optimism and action. And we’re thriving,” adds Jones, happily. So much so that the Factory has been attracting press interest, including the BBC.
For Phillips, the intention of the photographs were to support and encourage repair by showing the solutions . “We’ve got to bring back a repair culture,” he says. “The one message is this: there are lots and lots of solutions out there. We can adapt or adopt them. Then we can all make a change in our ability to deal with the problems we have.”
For inspiration, however, he had to look to other cultures, starting with Cuba, where repair is alive and kicking, but then looking towards other areas in Europe. As an example, he cites ReTuna, in Sweden, the world’s first repair and recycling shopping mall, built on the side of a household waste centre. “All the shops are independent. Customers donate their items and people sort it, repair it and sell it,” says Phillips, approvingly. “Money earned goes back into the repair community.”
Meanwhile, the Finnish turned a municipal incinerator into a reuse centre - in the 1990s. “Just to give you an idea of how far behind in the UK we are,” says Phillips, drily. “When I was there, they had eight reuse centres, they now have eleven”. Everything that is repaired is sold. One centre employs 250 people and they train refugees, those with alcohol or drug problems, to become repairers and help build communities.” About 60 percent of the items that come in are either repaired or reused in some way. Around 30 percent goes to proper recycling. Only about 10 per cent ends up in landfill or incineration.
“They’ve now generated enough money to self-fund and run education programmes; 35,000 people a year are educated in the benefits of repair, and why it’s important,” says Phillips.
A question came up on educating young people. Dear ran a course in a local secondary school: “They loved it. It was the first practical thing they’d done,” she says. “Frankly, repair should be on the curriculum.” Philips recalls a school in Munich where students opened a repair cafe and the school embedded repair into the curriculum: “There’s a huge amount you can teach the pupils through repair. They have to price repairs, source solutions, research information, assess safety, learn to physically repair. For many students, it would really engage them.” (For further reading on repair in education, visit The Culture of Repair. (https://www.cultureofrepair.org/)
But repair, upcycling, even re-use are simply responses to a problem that is getting worse: a culture of over-demand and over-production. “We need policy,” says Dear. “Last January, France introduced a repair index. That impacted customers which impacted manufacturers. Apple used to be dead against repair kits but the most recent iPhone is more repairable than usual, with visible screws. That was in response to the French Index. The tide is turning - but too slowly.”
“There is campaigning around the right to repair but that’s more about manufacturers providing repair afterwards,” she continues. Phillips adds: “The ultimate would be that manufacturers design products that are repairable from the outset. We’re at the stage where the real performance of things is going to level off. And that’s an opportunity. In the future, the value of an item might no longer be about some marginal improved functional performance. It might be about whether you can repair it.”