Reuse & Repair Culture
The Bower actively encourages a repair culture within the community. We have done so through educating through skills workshops, fostering artistic opportunities, promoting re-use craft, and seeking design ideas for re-invention of waste items.
Nowadays we have consignors who put their good craftsmanship to use, turning something battered and bruised into something classic and chic and showcasing the best of reuse and upcycling.
For those of us at the Bower, reuse is only one side of reducing waste. Repair is its twin.
Reuse of an item in poor condition can only last so long and will all too soon be returned to the waste stream. But repaired items, hinges working and wonky legs set straight and true, have extended lives with their new custodians. The longer items stay out of the waste stream, the better. What the Bower does could be described as life extension for everyday objects. Of course, there is more to repair culture than mending. For us, repair is an extended word, meaning to restore, to renew, to renovate and applies not only to the structure but often the aesthetics of an object as well.
In the face of convenience, luxury and an overabundance of choice, many of us have lost our ingenuity.
The values of consumption rule in an economy that has, across less than two generations, assembled the largest collection of non-durable, non-repairable items outside of an official war munitions economy. And these items are intended to last only for cycles of consumption. They can be limited by material obsolescence (chipboard or melamine disintegration, nearly always irreparable), technological obsolescence (x86 computers, analogue phones and TVs) or cultural obsolescence (fashion, web consciousness, games’ processing needs, graphic sophistication).
Values of mass consumption include convenience, standardisation, disposability, being in vogue and aspirational status. These same values of convenience and status can be met through investing in repair culture. Items that have been restored are convenient in their sturdy and reliable structure, while items that are upcycled are often unique and therefore unobtainable by others, providing status.
Repair culture then, is something that can be supported on a number of levels. Individuals don’t need to carry out their own repairs and maintenance to be involved or practise sustainable behaviour – it is simply a matter of investing the thought and effort in where and how you buy household items.
Do you need a new couch or simply a new upholstery job on your old one? Is IKEA truly convenient with all those allen keys and connection points, or would it be better to buy a sturdy TV unit with some character from a second hand store? Do you really want a brand new fridge or would a refurbished, resealed fridge get the job done?
Reuse and Repair
Intervening in the product life-cycle is one step in halting the conveyor belt to landfill of the disposable and in rethinking instead its final destination. In our grandparent’s generation, manufactured items were used over and over again. Labour was cheap, but resources were expensive. Waste dumps from their days were rather light on re-usable items. Transformation was a natural expression – 44-gallon drums became rotund kitchen cupboards, kerosene tins seemed to be anything but kerosene tins (food storage, chook nests, wall liners, cookers). We look to past inventiveness as an inspiration for the revival of a repair culture, where to throw something useful away is to be morally culpable – “waste not, want not”, whatever its origin, is not a modern expression.
At its simplest, reuse is when the unwanted item is redelivered to another consumer with values or needs that differ from the disposer. A table becomes a desk, a family fridge becomes a second or “beer” fridge, or the state-of-the-art finance computer becomes the kids’ email and homework machine.
Another intervention is that of “repair”. One aspect of this is to restore to serviceability an item that has been thrown out because it no longer works as it should (the chairleg is broken, the turntable won’t turn, the cupboard door won’t open and close). Intervention here is good for social values, as care must be applied to such items to maintain their life, and care is a positive emotion to invest. Ultimately, repair must extend to the entire ecosystem.
The other intervention crosses barriers relating to industrial mass production- turning circuit boards into bookends or CD racks and pet food tins into handbags, a fridge into a food-smoker, a railway trolley into a coffee table, bike cogs into a garden seat. When this intervention takes place, the output is more of the nature of a handmade than industrial commodity. Rather than the object transforming dramatically (the components often remain visible) what happens is that different values are built in to objects by “repairing” them. These values are to do with usefulness and endurance, with skill and craftsmanship, with creativity and uniqueness, with subtlety and humour and with care and pride. There is no necessity for craft to rely upon primary resources to manufacture, only upon resources that can be modified.
When these values spread to and are taken up by sections of the community, interesting things begin to happen.
Labour becomes positive (many “repairers” spend hours almost every day at “work”, enjoying themselves), skip bins begin to fill with possibilities rather than refuse, creativity emerges without art classes, fresh skills are sought out as they extend one’s capabilities, originality emerges across the face of industrial mass consumption. New relationships are made, where co-operation becomes the key to completing restorative works, or where one person’s project answers another’s need. No-one from inside the repair culture could morally avoid the responsibility towards an item facing disposal that has “potential” to be re-used in some form. Such items are either kept for use, re-use, re-invention, or, in the rational economy emerging, are placed in the system of re-use centres like the Bower for distribution.
These changes will not end waste, nor will they make the major contribution towards ending waste. But discussions of the waste reduction hierarchy has placed far too much emphasis upon “Reduce” and “Recycling”, which still leave intact relationships (and in the case of recycling even the values) between production and mass consumption.
The ideas of re-use within a repair culture transform on so many levels. Consumption is reduced because raw materials and commodities are replaced, recycling is encouraged because responsibility is accepted for materials that pass through our custodianship and re-use becomes an inventive game, full of possibility.