Look around you, right now, wherever you are. Are you surrounded by designed and built objects? Are you wearing clothes? Do you have a pocket, a bag, a home, filled with things you own?
Do You Know Your Stuff?
Let’s say you are sitting at home, reading these words. Look around. Pick one object, whatever your eye falls on. Where was it made? Who made it? How did it get into your home (or office, or bag)? How long have you had it? What kind of shape is it in? What will happen to it when you are done with it?
Replacing Empty Space
I am a theatrical set designer – I create spaces and fill those spaces with stuff. But that’s nothing special – we all do this, every day, all our lives long. We fill our homes, our bags, our worlds with objects we choose (or find, or inherit, or are given). Like a stage designer, we are telling a story with the worlds we create for ourselves.
Each Item Has a Story
What story do the things around you tell – about you and about the society you are part of?
One NYC Waste-Hater’s Search to Repair
Let’s look at one object – Jacquie Ottman’s Krups coffee maker. Jacquie emailed me a few days ago to ask if I could help her with a leaky coffee maker. When Jacquie tried to use it, she found that “about 2/3rds of the water makes its way through the filter into the pot so part of the water does get through to the coffeemaker while the rest of it seems to leak out from the back.
Jacquie, as a waste-hater, had emailed Krups to see about fixing it in NYC. They replied with the names of two repair services, and the suggestion that it might be a dried gasket (the coffee maker is 10 years old). Unfortunately for Jacquie, the two repair shops recommended are in Jamaica, Queens, and Long Island. Jacquie lives in Upper Manhattan. Even for a truly dedicated non-waster like Jacquie, this represents a long trek to repair a coffee maker that can be replaced for between $70 and $200 dollars, depending on the bells and whistles.
To Replace or Not to Replace, That is the Question
So, the question remains – buy a new coffee maker, or not? Today, in NYC, a largely plastic and metal small appliance like Jacquie’s can be largely recycled, so perhaps it is not so wasteful to recycle the old coffee maker and get a new one.
The True Cost of Replacing Rather than Repairing Things
Unfortunately, making a new coffee maker creates a lot of waste before Jacquie even buys it – as much as 40x as much waste as the weight of the old, leaky machine sent to landfill, according to Annie Leonard. So, the real problem Jacquie faces is not the problem of landfill or recycling – it is the problem of buying new.
Buying new goods is resource and energy intensive, and the costs of the process are largely hidden from the consumer, out of sight, far away, and not fully reflected in the price of the new coffee maker.
A Disconnect Between Us and the Stuff We Own
Could Jacquie – or I, or you – even answer some of the questions posed above about story of our stuff? Who made the coffee maker? Where? How long did it take and how much were they paid?
The story Jacquie’s coffee maker is telling is the story of a society that is very divorced from the production of almost everything that we own. Look around you. How many of the things you see were made by you? Some? One? None? This is not to say that making your own stuff is necessarily better – we have to face the reality of the world we live in, and all the hours Jacquie might have spent hand-crafting her own coffee maker were almost certainly better spent living the life she actually leads.
But what happens when the system surrounding the things we own makes it almost impossible to take care of what we have? And is there a way to change that system? Because let’s face it, Jacquie is almost certainly not going to take her Krups to Jamaica, Queens to be fixed.
Making Repair Part of the Story in NYC
Since 2013, I have been experimenting with finding an alternative to this system. Is there a way to provide a repair service that might make it possible – easy, even – for Jacquie to get her coffee maker fixed in NYC? With my co-founder and husband Michael Banta, and a small group of fellow backstage artists, we started opening repair shops in NYC where people can bring their coffee makers, and also their chairs, lamps, ceramics, jewelry, toys, and more. We are turning the traditional model of repair upside down and inside out, and building a new version that can be part of a sustainable, modern way of life.
Opportunities to Repair are ‘Popping Up’ in NYC
We have opened 10 short term repair shops in 3 NYC boroughs, and dozens of one-day educational workshops. We have taken in over 2,000 broken items and successfully repaired 85% of them. We charge for our services, and we pay our fixers. We are building a model that looks at repair from the customer’s point of view. Rather than specializing, we provide one-stop drop-off service for a wide range of items. We bring together NYC’s fixers with different specialties, and we have no fixed storefront. Instead, we partner with local businesses and community organizations to provide convenient drop-off locations around the city.
Repair: A Step Towards Sustainable Consumption in NYC
We’ve been doing this periodically for three years – and it’s working. I believe that repair, maintenance, and stewardship are a necessary part of any vision for sustainable consumption. Even if we can, some day, switch over to renewable energy, the rate of resource depletion and environmental degradation caused by the way we eat and shop is simply not going to work. And, more importantly, we are not happy with this system, as individuals.
Steve Howard, IKEA’s Chief Sustainability Officer said on NPR recently that here in the west we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’. If companies like IKEA are coming to the realization that they can’t continue to expand revenues by selling more, perhaps we have finally reached the point where we can build maintenance, repair – stewardship – into our business models. At Pop Up Repair, we’ve been doing the R&D work for 3 years now, and we can tell you that people want the service, and that there is value to be had. Value for business, value for customers, value for our society, and for the earth.
Keep Learning about Repair and DIY with Pop Up Repair in NYC
Like repair cafes, we also offer educational workshops – we believe that DIY and drop-off services go hand in hand. It’s like food – sometimes you have time and inclination to cook your own meal, and sometimes you just don’t have the time. But choosing to spend time or money on good food is something we can all understand as critical for our health and happiness, for the individual and for the environment. Choosing to spend time or money on taking care of your stuff is just as important – and can be just as satisfying.
Jacquie took her coffee maker to a friend from the Fixer’s Collective, a local NYC version of a repair café. And if something else breaks in her home soon, she can bring it to our upcoming Pop Up Repair. We’re partnering with some amazing organizations, included Patagonia, GrowNYC, United War Veterans Council, and Dichter Pharmacy to reduce waste, create local jobs, and make it easy for NYC to get stuff fixed.
Repairing Your Relationship with Stuff in NYC
We are what we eat. We are also what we make – and, as modern Americans, that means we are what we buy, what we own, what keep. Making and having stuff is a fundamentally human activity – every culture on earth does it. Look around you. Isn’t it time to find again the value in taking care of what we have?
Posting Guidelines – This and other stories published on WeHateToWaste.com are intended to prompt positive conversations about practical solutions for preventing waste. Opinions expressed are solely those of the contributors, and WeHateToWaste implies no endorsement of the products or organizations mentioned.