Repair Cafes: A Movement To Fix Our Throwaway Culture

Torn T-shirts, dead remote controls and jammed DVD players aren't necessarily doomed for the junk heap. Sustainability is the watchword at these special German locales.

In the Netherlands, at one of the first-ever Repair Cafes
In the Netherlands, at one of the first-ever Repair Cafes
Carolina Torres

GERMERING — Some “patients” are so bulky they have to be brought in crates and bags. Alexander Nehr has one with him, and he’s been waiting for 45 minutes to get it looked at. But his dad’s old tape recorder is worth the wait.

“It dates from the 1970s,” says the 37-year-old Nehr. “There are even recordings of me on it from when I was a kid.”

He learned about the Repair Café — where, quite simply, broken things are fixed — after reading about it in the newspaper. Even though an old friend is visiting him this weekend, he drove from Munich to Germering (some 15 kilometers west of Munich) with the broken recorder and its two large tape spools packed into a suitcase. Now the two friends are sitting patiently watching the lively goings-on around them and waiting for their number to be called.

The event is organized by members of the Evangelical Free Church. The concept is simple: Anybody with broken computers and electrical devices, clothes, bicycles and other items in need of repair can pop by and work with an expert to fix the item. “We wanted to do something that would be beneficial to the community,” says Repair Café founder Gerhard Busch.

But the idea is also a way for Busch and his colleagues to fight the throw-away mentality. Quick consumption, disposal, more consumption. He wants to see an end to that pattern. Sustainability is important to those involved with the Repair Café. Your electric toothbrush has given up the ghost? The reason could be as simple as depleted batteries. Replace those and the device might be as good as new. But even more serious issues such as chairs with broken legs aren’t candidates for the junk heap, says Busch.

The Repair Café idea comes from the Netherlands and has found imitators the world over. In Germany, there are Repair Cafés in over 30 cities. The Germering project was launched only recently.

Don’t throw out that broken remote control

The event is held regularly at the community center. Focused, individual “clinics” are held around wooden tables equipped with tools, voltmeters, needles and thread — whatever is required for the particular clinic. There’s a computer clinic, a clinic for items made of wood, and clinics for bicycles, clothes and small appliances. Visitors waiting for their turn cluster around the expert working at the table. Some help while others observe attentively as items are repaired — everything from broken remote control devices and microwave ovens, to torn pants and T-shirts, to broken chairs and laptops.

Brunhilde “Bruni” Bartl from Germering volunteers in the clothes clinic. As far as sewing goes, she’s self-taught. Her childhood dream was to become a dressmaker. But because she could get a free room if she trained as a nurse, she opted for hospital work instead. Now 68 and retired, she’s making something of her old dream come true at the clinic.

Skillfully she inserts thread into the white sewing machine and starts sewing an open seam. “Just before this, I showed a little girl how she could fix her torn tights,” she says. Tonight while she watches TV at home, she says she intends to knit some cuffs for a sweater a woman brought in.

The Repair Café is a team effort. Visitors don’t just deposit their defective devices. They also help fix them. Some 100 visitors have come to the Repair Café workshop on this Saturday. Eighty people wanted to have something fixed, but it was only possible to handle 60 items. “We were a little overrun this time,” Busch says.

“The whole concept relies entirely on the experts being willing to invest their spare time,” Busch says. And until now there have been too few of those, so that some clinic visitors have had waiting times of up to 90 minutes. For many that’s too long, and they leave.

Even if a device can’t be repaired, many are happy they turned up anyway because, as Busch says, “that means they can throw the broken item away with a clean conscience.”

What’s astonishing here is the degree of consideration people display towards one another. One visitor asks if she can bring cake for everybody to the next session. Another donates all manner of sewing equipment to the clothing clinic.

For Nehr, the visit paid off. All his tape recorder needs is a couple of minor replacement parts and it’ll be right as rain. He can buy them and come back to the next Repair Café in Germering — or he can use his newfound knowledge to install the parts himself.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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