Dutch trend of Repair Cafés building in AmericaWritten by Toledo Free Press Staff Writers | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Although he came home to good-natured complaints from his wife, like ‘You stink,’ Frank Kadlick loved his job as a City of Toledo refuse collector.
“They had a lot of fancy names for what we did,” Kadlick said, “but I was a garbageman.”
Kadlick, 47, worked for the City of Toledo refuse collection division for 26 years and said he particularly loved finding what he called “those rare gems” that sometimes showed up in people’s garbage cans.
“If there was something that was thrown in, sometimes it might look brand-new,” Kadlick said. “And like that old saying goes, ‘One guy’s junk is another guy’s treasure.’”
Kadlick’s experiences are not unique to garbage collectors. Waste disposal is a serious social issue in many parts of the world for many reasons, not the least being the shortage of land. Space restrictions are especially problematic in the Netherlands, one of the the most population-dense countries in the world.
For Dutch journalist Martine Postma, the issue became a personal crusade. Postma, who regularly reported on waste disposal, recalled walking down the street on garbage-collection day and noticing what people were throwing out.
“It struck me there were many things there that could be repaired,” Postma said.
Today, Postma, 42, describes herself as a former journalist. She left the profession to become more personally active in environmental sustainability.
“I was a journalist, but I wanted to do more,” Postma said. “I really wanted to contribute something and to take sides. As a journalist, you always have to be objective. You can’t really promote something.”
Her thoughts kept returning to those salvageable items she’d seen in the trash.
“I thought it would be easy [to reduce waste] if you could repair those things,” she said. “[To make] repairing a real alternative to throwing away and buying something new, you have to make repairing easy and attractive and accessible.”
The first Repair Café
Her solution was the creation of a neighborhood Repair Café.
“It should be something that is fun to do,” Postma said. “It shouldn’t be a workplace or a shop where you drop things off and pick them up later, but I thought to make it a social event where you can meet your neighbors and you can make new contacts with people from your own neighborhood. That makes it fun.”
Postma said finding repair experts wasn’t difficult, and she was pleasantly surprised to find there are still people who know how to fix almost anything.
“The funny thing is, for those people, it’s their biggest hobby,” she said. “They like doing it and they like sharing the knowledge and passing it on and helping other people.”
The first organized meeting in 2009 was “an unexpected success,” Postma said.
She wasn’t sure if anyone would come. Instead, area residents showed up early, bringing everything from electrical appliances to clothes to furniture to musical instruments.
“People were very enthusiastic,” Postma said. “Many people came to me and said, ‘Oh, this is really a solution for me. I don’t like to throw out things, but you have to because you cannot get them repaired anywhere. Is this going to be here every week now? Or every month?’ So, I thought, ‘Well, apparently, this strikes a note.’”
In response, Postma founded the Repair Café Foundation in March 2010. Its mission is to spread the concept of Repair Cafés and help establish new locations. The foundation provides information, guidelines, posters, fliers, sample news releases and a 26-page instruction booklet.
“Now all kinds of groups all over The Netherlands want to do this for themselves,” she said.
As of June 1, 42 groups in the Netherlands have established Repair Cafés, from locations in big-city Amsterdam to hamlets of 600 villagers, Postma said.
Funding comes from private individuals, the government and private foundations, Postma said, with the greatest support coming from the DOEN Foundation, a Dutch organization that promotes and supports social cohesion.
“They want to bring people together who live in the same neighborhood and to strengthen the community,” she said. “That’s their goal. And that’s what the Repair Café also does.”
Finding electricians is an important first step in establishing a Repair Café, Postma said.
“You need at least three or four electricians — people who know how electrical current works and who can handle electrical appliances,” she said.
A second consideration is finding a place to meet and a third consideration is publicity.
“There, you get help from us, from the foundation, because we have a press release prepared where you just have to fill in the name of your group and your location,” Postma said. “So it’s not really that difficult for people to get started with our help.”
The cost of tools is seldom problematic because people with repair skills often have their own tools.
“If you have the electrician and you have a carpenter and someone who’s a good bicycle mechanic and you have a seamstress, they are usually willing to bring their own machines and tools,” Postma said. “If you organize it for a second or third time, then you might want to buy some tools, but they are not essential to get started. You can very well use or ask the repair men and women to bring their own.”
Unbeknownst to her, Postma’s crusade in The Netherlands had a counterpart in the United States.
In 2009, the same year she organized her first Repair Café meeting, a group of environmentally minded individuals in Brooklyn, met to discuss ways they could have a positive impact on their neighborhood environment. They established what they called a Fixers Collective, which, three years later, has become a model for Fixers Collectives across the nation.
A New York Times article about the Brooklyn Fixers Collective came to the attention of Greg Kono, exhibit developer at Pacific Science Center, a private, nonprofit science museum in Seattle.
Kono’s manager saw the article and asked him to determine whether the Pacific Science Center could organize a similar project.
Kono contacted the West Seattle Tool Library, a donation-operated organization that loans tools to community members, and suggested the initiative would be a great fit.
“The Tool Library loved the idea, and pushed me out front, and said, ‘You run it,’” Kono said.
Space for the West Seattle Fixers Collective, which recently marked its first anniversary, was offered rent-free from the Tool Library, which also provides liability insurance.
“All those things were already in place that let me move forward,” Kono said. “Now, it’s just getting the word out, which seems to be exploding now with all of the national publicity.”
The West Seattle Fixers’ Collective regularly invites local experts to teach workshops, including home plumbing, house wiring, bicycle repair and a plumbing series for women taught by a female contractor. The group has also hosted an “Ask the Expert” series, which offered advice to people working on projects.
Several owners who operate local repair shops in areas with Repair Cafés and Fixers Collectives said they do not feel threatened by the tool libraries, but enjoy increased business because people begin to develop a mindset for repair.
Kono said he doesn’t want to compete with repair shops.
“We’re more about having people … work on those pieces themselves,” Kono said. “I don’t want to a have a pile of stuff that somebody dropped off.”
Margaret Danziger, deputy director of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL), acknowledged tool libraries offer a valuable service, but said she doesn’t see the TLCPL board of directors pursuing that avenue of services.
“I’m not saying we wouldn’t consider a tool library,” Danziger said. “I’m just saying that, at this point, we’re just really thinking about bottom line, and not adding anything more to the taxpayer.”
Danziger said the TLCPL will ask voters in November to renew a two-mill levy, which currently provides the library with $15,295,000 a year, and to approve a .9-mill increase, which would generate another $7,647,500 a year. The .9-mill increase will cost an additional $25 to $27 more per year for every $100,000 in home value, Danziger said.
“If the levy does not pass, we will lose 50 percent of our budget,” Danziger said. “It means half of everything. It would affect hours, buildings, locations, staff and materials, everything you could think of. It would be destruction. So it is pretty clear that we must pass this.”
Danziger suggested tool libraries would fit better in the small business community.
Jim Izbinski, the 25-year manager of Reggie’s Bike Shop, 5934 Secor Road, said he supports the concept of people taking ownership of their belongings.
“I really like the idea of people learning to fix their own things,” he said.
Izbinski said he has seen a 40 to 50 percent increase in repair business during the past five years.
“Back 10 to 12 years ago, people said, ‘Ah, $60. … I’ll buy a new bike for $200-$300,’” Izbinski said. “Well, now they’re saying, ‘I’ll just pay the $60 and get this one fixed.’”
Despite the increased interest he has seen in bicycle repair, however, Izbinski isn’t sure a Fixers Collective could succeed in his hometown.
“Toledo just seems to be so far behind the times as far as things like that go,” Izbinski said. “I don’t know if we have the right mindset. I don’t know if we could get enough people. … I used to go to these meetings that used to try to help promote cycling. We tried to get the bike lanes paved, lines on the roads, bicycle lanes. Nothing ever seemed to happen. I just don’t know … I don’t know why it is. For some reason, it doesn’t matter what it is, organizing anything in Toledo is a difficult thing. I don’t understand why, but it is.”
Dave Smith, owner of Dave Smith Appliance Services, 3820 W. Alexis Road, said he would be concerned with what he considers the average person’s lack of expertise in repairing electrical products.
Smith got his start repairing microwaves for Highland Appliance in the early 1980s and started his own business in 1993. He said appliance repair is no longer mainly mechanical, like changing belts and making adjustments, but a highly technical and demanding electronics job that includes repairing lasers in dishwashers and adjusting Internet-capable appliances.
“It’s a far cry from putting a little grease on something and changing a valve,” Smith said. “It’s a completely, completely different industry from what it was.”
Although Smith said self-repair can be beneficial for simple repairs, he is uncomfortable with the idea of people trying to fix their own appliances.
“We’re kind of seeing that a little bit online now,” Smith said. “You can go online and find YouTube videos. And you can find chats on how to do some simple repairs yourself.
“Out of curiosity, I checked some of these things out, but the problem is some of this information is very mixed. Some of it is right, dead on. That’s good advice. That was a good fix. That was a good repair. And other times, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my, my. What’s this person [saying]? That’s the most ridiculous thing to do. And somebody’s going to get himself killed here.’”
Smith said his shop often gets business from people who botched a self-repair attempt.
“The whole key there, with do-it-yourself, is knowing when to quit and call a professional,” Smith said. “This is not a business you learn in a three-month class. It takes a lot of time even to do it professionally.”
Mike Janiszewski, owner of Fix-It Shop, 1801 Sylvania Ave., said he sees a need for mom-and-pop repair businesses.
“It’s a part of Americana that’s going quickly,” said Janiszewski, whose shop repairs vacuum cleaners and rug shampooers and makes minor electrical repairs to lamps.
Janiszewski’s 34 years of experience have convinced him people could benefit from learning simple repair skills.
“Men will bring lamps in here that don’t work. The only reason they don’t work is because they need a light bulb,” Janiszewski said. “I call it common sense. On minor repairs, they have no clue.”
However, Janiszewski doesn’t believe people would be inclined to support a Toledo-area Repair Café or Fixers’ Collective.
“Having a smaller population than those two big cities (Amsterdam and Brooklyn), I don’t think there’d be enough interest here in Toledo to support it,” Janiszewski said. “I don’t want to say people are lazy, but if you drive around town and see all the grass cutters, all the snow [blowers], and all the window washers, you can kind of tell people don’t like to do a whole lot anymore. I don’t think there would be an interest.”
Janiszewski said Toledoans seem more inclined to dispose of an item than to repair it.
“Today, they throw everything away,” Janiszewski said. “Take food, for example. I like leftovers. My kids, they don’t. They’ll throw it away instead of putting it in the refrigerator. … A lot of younger people … they waste massive amounts of stuff. … Growing up and doing this [job], it’s amazing the changes I’ve seen. People are becoming more wasteful. Very, very wasteful.”
Mike Hayden, director of operations and education for Toledo Bikes!, acknowledges both Janiszewski and Izbinski may have valid points in their observations of Toledoans in general.
“Taken as a whole, they’re probably right,” Hayden said. “But to change things, you know, you have to start somewhere.”
Hayden believes Toledo Bikes! has taken the first step in what he hopes will become standard practice for all Toledoans.
Toledo Bikes!, 1114 Washington St., in Downtown Toledo, is a nonprofit charitable organization. Offering the use of tools and workstations, Toledo Bikes! encourages people to bring bicycles for repair rather than toss them in a landfill. Bikes beyond repair are recycled into parts or scrap metal.
Hayden said Toledo Bikes! receives donations of six to 10 bikes a week, and has more than 250 bikes in inventory. Bicycles are “upgraded” and sold in the Washington Street showroom or donated to local schools. In November, Toledo Bikes! donated 15 bicycles to Keyser Elementary School.
Although Toledo Bikes! was unaware of the Repair Café and Fixers Collective movement, a summer program it has planned for the Toledo YWCA, 1018 Jefferson Ave., is similar to what is happening in Amsterdam, Brooklyn and Seattle.
“We’re going to train the kids in bicycle mechanics, and then we’re going to start having them process and work on these kids bikes so that at the end of the summer, we’ll be able to do another bike giveaway to the schools,” Hayden said.
Hayden said he has faith that people can change.
“It’s an educational thing that we’re going to have to go through,” he said. “It will happen here sooner or later. It’s just that Toledo is one of those places that takes longer for things to take root.”
David Takats, director of fund development and marketing for Goodwill Industries of Northwest Ohio, said he sees the Repair Café and Fixers Collective movement as positive for everyone.
“That’s fantastic,” Takats said. “We really encourage that type of behavior. But there are plenty of people that can’t fix things, that can’t use those items. And those are the people who donate to us generally — because they want to give something to a good cause.
“Don’t throw it in the garbage. If you don’t know how to fix it, if you don’t know what to do with it, give it to us. We’ll take care of it. If it can’t be fixed, if it can’t be sold, we’ll responsibly recycle it and make sure it doesn’t go into a landfill. But if it can, we love to give it to people and let them use it, have that product have a repurpose, a new life.”
Takats said people should consider the long-term consequences of tossing items in the trash.
“Think of what you’ve probably thrown away this year alone by yourself,” he said. “And if everyone were to bring in that kind of stuff, how much could we actually keep out of landfills? How much good could we actually do for the community, and the public, and just the whole welfare of the planet, if everyone kind of thought consciously like that, that I’m consciously not going to throw this away?”
Takats said he is starting to see a shift in American culture making repurposing acceptable.
“I think there is awareness
of just the elements of what we waste,” Takats said. “There’s that element from society that’s starting to look at it and say, ‘We don’t want to ruin our planet and all of our natural resources.’
“And this is just a first step, a beginning. We’re not fully there, by any means, but I do think that there’s a cultural shift. …
“It makes sense not to destroy the planet, not to be wasteful, not to throw things away that could be fixed, that could be used again.”
— Reporting by John P. McCartney