Environment

Most Brits bin electrical items if they break. These 'magic' Repair Cafés are trying to change that

Just 28% of Brits successfully fixed their last electrical item that broke. Across the country, over 600 local repair groups are working to change that

Volunteer fixers help people repair their items at a community repair event in London. Image: Mark A Phillips

It’s not much to look at: an old grey cassette recorder, slightly battered at the edges. But when Rachel brought the obsolete tech into a London repair group, she left volunteers speechless. 

“We all had tears in our eyes,” says Charlotte Bullock, co-founder of the Chiswick Repair Café. 

“She [Rachel] said it was the only way she could listen to the last known recording of her late mum’s voice.”

But the tape was broken, and Rachel didn’t know how to repair it. She’s not alone – according to a new YouGov poll, just 28% of Brits successfully fixed, or had fixed, their last electrical item that broke. Across the country, more than 600 local repair groups are working to change that.

The Chiswick Repair Café runs once a month, filling a church hall with trestle tables, volunteers, and mountains of broken bric-a-brac. 

“We say to people, ‘If you can carry it, we can try and fix it,’” declares Bullock. “We literally get everything. From toasters and hoovers to hair dryers and teddies. And so many chairs.”

Workshops like this are not mere ‘fixing services,’ stresses Chris Setz, founder of the nearby Haringey Fixers group. Instead, they are collaborative community initiatives, forums for people to develop DIY skills and share them with others. A self-described “old hippy”, Setz learnt do-it-yourself tricks in the 1970s.  

“I was a young, homeless graduate living in squats,” he says. “The council would pour concrete down toilets and pull up floorboards to try and make places uninhabitable. So I bought a DIY manual.” 

Britain has a huge material footprint

As the cost of living crisis squeezes budgets up and down the country, repair groups are increasingly popular. As our ecological footprint grows, they’re also an environmental necessity.

“We live in a throwaway society. That needs to change,” Setz says.

Brits chuck out approximately 70 million homeware items every single year, a mountain of waste worth some £2.2 billion. We also churn out e-waste, producing an eye watering 25kg per person per annum. Meanwhile, ultra-cheap fast fashion brands encourage endless consumption; a 2022 survey by British Wool found that the average person disposes 72 items of clothing per year. 

Rachel, from the Chiswick Repair cafe, with her tape recorder.

Much of this waste mountain festers in landfill, belching out methane and leaching chemicals into groundwater. Producing replacements requires carbon-intensive mining and shipping. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, it takes 3,781 litres of water to make a pair of jeans. Darning over a rip in your favourite trousers can be more powerful than you might expect.

“Fixing things gets people off the addiction of fast fashion,” says Mary Horesh, founder of the Ealing repair café, a bi-monthly group focusing on textile and clothes repair. “Clothes you mend become all the more precious to you.”

Encouraging repair is important, says Fiona Dear, co-director of the Restart Project, a social enterprise and campaign organisation that supports repair cafes. But the way that we manufacture things needs to change, too.  

“It’s getting harder and harder to fix things,” Dear explains. “Depending on your age, your first mobile phone probably had a battery that you could flip out and change pretty easily.

“Now, it would probably involve unscrewing different parts, potentially using a heat-gun – difficult, technical work.” 

This is no accident. By making it difficult to fix a phone, a company makes it more likely that you’ll simply buy a new one. In 2022, researchers estimated that 5.3 billion mobile phones were thrown away. 

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But solutions exist. The EU has proposed rules forcing manufacturers to offer customers repairs within 10 years of purchase. They also have to make their products repairable by third parties – meaning you won’t have to get an expensive, highly specialised Apple part for your iPhone. Mandatory extended warranties require companies to replace defective products. In the UK, white goods have to be repairable by “commonly available” tools, and manufacturers must give professionals access to repair documentation and spare parts for up to 10 years. According to YouGov, 85% of people want this legislation expanded to include all appliances and devices.

“We want the right to repair to apply to electronics, too,” Dear explains. “You shouldn’t be locked out from fixing your own things.”

To mark International Repair Day (21st October), more than 110 UK groups have signed up to a new Repair and Reuse Declaration. The declaration calls on the government to expand UK repair legislation and remove barriers to DIY.

The ecological consequences would be huge – but so are the personal ones. Learning to fix is “empowering”, Horesh enthuses – you can find your local repair cafe group here. “There’s such an achievement in being able to mend your own things. Even little things,” she says. “One person came in and I taught her how to darn a sock. She basically skipped out, she was so pleased.”

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Mending gives obsolete items a new lease of life, helping people resurrect treasured items. Horesh recalls a woman diligently reweaving a tattered 1970s bath mat. At the Chiswick café, a father-son team fixed a slide viewer that hadn’t worked for 30 years, revealing images hidden since the 1990s. 

And every now and again, you get a truly special moment – like with Rachel, the retiree with the cassette recording of her mother’s voice. 

“Our volunteers fixed it,” Bullock says. “She was so, so happy to have it working. That’s what it’s all about really, isn’t it?”

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