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Case study: Repair Cafés

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Closeup of two men leaning over a partially disassembled electronic piece of equipment
A case study on how Portland’s community-led Repair Cafés prevent good things from going to waste. Volunteers fix broken items – from lamps, to bikes, and everything in-between – while building community knowledge and connections.
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The problem

With so many inexpensive and disposable products on the market, it’s often easier to throw things out than repair them. This has caused dispose-and-buy-new consumer habits to skyrocket, while the knowledge and practice of repairing has declined. For instance, how many people darn their socks anymore or can fix a broken cell phone screen?

The effect of this consumption isn’t just in the landfill. The biggest environmental and carbon impact of a product often happens before it even gets to the consumer. The raw materials, energy, manufacturing and transportation of everything from a toy to an automobile eventually result in carbon emissions. And even if that toy or car can be recycled, only a portion of the resources and energy needed to create them is reduced.

On average, 73% of emissions are produced before a consumer ever purchases a product. Just one example: Levi’s estimates a single pair of its jeans produces 72 pounds of lifecycle carbon emissions.

So, when an item is repaired instead of replaced, it prevents the use of materials, energy and other resources needed to create and transport the replacement product.

Repair Cafés offer a solution

Sign of "Sewing" with blurred background of woman sitting at sewing machine

At Repair Cafés, volunteers fix broken household items for free. At Portland Repair Café events, the types of items repaired depends on the volunteers themselves. Mostly, they fix small appliances and bikes, mend garments, and sometimes sharpen tools and knives, or repair jewelry or shoes. In addition to bringing broken items back to life, Repair Cafés teach people how to fix their own things. A do-it-yourself spirit runs through these events, with attendees learning side-by-side with fixers.

Portland’s cafés promote a culture of repair, highlighting volunteer and attendee stories about saving family heirlooms or making a favorite pair of pants last a bit longer. This culture of repair extends to promoting professional repair shops and tradespeople, small businesses that play a role in the local economy and provide a community resource.

How did Portland’s Repair Cafés come to be?

Repair PDX was created in 2013 by Portlander Lauren Gross. Lauren brought together interested residents and activists after learning about Amsterdam’s Repair Cafés, which began in 2007.

Local government agencies were brought to the table to crowd source ideas and help organize events. This included the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Metro, and the Master Recycler Program. Repair PDX also partners with many local organizations to host events, including the North Portland Tool Library, Southeast Portland Tool Library, Rosewood Initiative, ReBuilding Center, Alder Commons, and the City of Portland’s Fix-It Fairs.

The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s Alicia Polacok has been actively involved in Repair Cafés from the beginning, helping organize events and providing logistical support. In 2014, Alicia brought Repair Cafés into the City's long-running Fix-It Fairs: These annual events offer classes and resources from government and nonprofit organizations to provide low-to-moderate income residents with simple and sustainable ways to save money. Repair Cafés have been a popular and well-attended addition to the Fix-It Fair offerings.

The City also regularly promotes Repair Cafés through the Resourceful PDX event calendar, the Master Recycler program, and the Portland Curbsider, an annual publication sent to 200,000 households.

Low-income voucher pilot

In 2020, Repair PDX received a grant to design a voucher program that would make it more affordable for low-income residents to take items to professional repair shops. Community members can go directly to a repair shop or get help from Repair PDX to find one. The vouchers subsidize the cost of repairing items, making repairs free or low-cost.

Vouchers cover broken household items that might otherwise be thrown away, including small appliances (e.g., toasters, paper shredders, fans), lamps, clothes, electronics, shoes, and clocks. However, vouchers can’t be used for things like cars, large appliances or home repairs.

A similar program in Vienna, Austria has had tremendous success: Over 10,000 vouchers were downloaded within a few weeks and more than 8,000 products repaired.

What’s next

Repair PDX and BPS are working to understand the public’s perceptions and motivations around reuse and repair. They have gathered stories from both fixers and attendees to gain insight about the importance of fixing items rather than throwing them away.

In 2021, BPS surveyed repair and reuse organizations in Portland to learn what they need to continue to expand their work. A common challenge is finding appropriate and affordable spaces (retail, workshops, warehouses). A small group of organizations and BPS staff will meet to discuss how this and other needs can be met and explore options for collaborative solutions.

State-level legislation impacts – and sometimes prohibits – what can be legally repaired and whether individuals have access to the information they need to repair products. Repair PDX continues to advocate for “Right-to-Repair” legislation in Oregon to make it easier for everyone to repair electronics, lawnmowers, and more.

Learn more and get involved

There are many repair resources available, in Portland and beyond.

Portland resources

Repair PDX offers online tutorials, a newsletter of upcoming events and resources, and opportunities to volunteer and share your skills.

Pilot repair voucher program: Email Repair PDX or fill out this form to share your interest in participating in the voucher project as a volunteer, someone needing a voucher, or a business that might want to participate by fixing items.

Resourceful PDX provides a map of repair, reuse and share organizations and opportunities around Portland. Find ideas and tips for different seasons and life stages in the blog.

Portland Repair Finder, another community-led resource, is harnessing all of those pieces into stories and listings for anyone to locate repair options in the Portland metro region.

Additional resources

IFixit provides free how-to guides to repair electronics, cars, clothing, and much more.

Repair Association advocates for repair-friendly policies, regulations, statutes, and standards at the national, state, and local levels.

FiX iT Lane County provides a list of repair organizations and events around Lane County, OR, as well as a collection of repair tutorial videos.

Zero Waste Washington organizes fix-it fairs, similar to repair cafes, where volunteers repair and mend items people bring into the fairs.

Repair Economy WA provides a map of tool libraries and repair organizations around Washington state, as well as events and other resources.

Global Virtual Fixit Clinics organizes repair events from all over the world: volunteer or attend.