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What to Do with All This Broken Stuff? Cities Aim to Help People Fix It

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Across the country, municipalities are helping residents repair mendable belongings, keep material out of landfills and save money.

With a basket of broken toys and her two children in tow, Washington, D.C. resident Daniela Ochoa was on a mission.

On a steamy August night in the nation’s capital, Ochoa was one of a handful of curious residents who brought tattered toys, ripped clothing and broken jewelry to be repaired at the city’s first Fix-It Clinic. Sitting under the shade of a small pop-up tent, Ochoa worked with two volunteer fix-it coaches to sift through the basket of mendable items. A small Goofy figurine was glued back together. A fabric fan required just a few stitches to mend a small hole.

“I try to teach them that toys are not disposable,” said Ochoa of her children, 6-year-old Martin and 3-year-old Maja.

That was the point D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment sought to highlight by hosting the event.

“We are trying to come up with strategies beyond the big strategies of composting and recycling, new strategies to supplement the city’s efforts to divert waste,” said DOEE Director Tommy Wells.

Also known as repair cafés, fix-it clinics have gained popularity in recent years as a way for local governments to encourage residents to reduce, reuse and recycle. It can also help them save money, as they won't need to replace broken items.

For Washington, D.C., the event was one way to work toward the city’s broader sustainability goals, Wells said. Among those goals, the city aims to divert 80% of its waste away from landfills by 2032.

Hands-On Model

A key element to every fix-it clinic is to teach someone how to make repairs, not to do it for them, said Nancy Lo, a waste reduction and recycling specialist with Hennepin County Environment and Energy Department in Minnesota.

“It’s a lot more empowering and fun. There’s this domino effect where they realize they can do this and if something else breaks at home they can fix it,” said Lo, who organized the county’s first clinic seven years ago.

The clinics remain popular, drawing both new and repeat participants. Each month, approximately 40 volunteers who specialize in everything from sewing to engineering help troubleshoot repairs for 60 to 100 people, Lo said. Over the lifespan of the program, volunteers have fixed more than 5,800 items—vacuum cleaners and lamps are their most commonly repaired items—and diverted nearly 40,000 pounds of waste from landfills.

Washington, D.C.’s first city-sponsored event was small, but organizers said it holds promise. The August clinic featured two volunteer fixers who specialized in jewelry and fabric repairs.

Mackenzie Mathews, 24, brought her supply of jewelry parts, jump rings, loose beads and small tools to aid in jewelry repairs. She helped one woman fix the broken clasp on a necklace and extend the length of the chain on another.

“This is a reminder you can take the time to fix something,” Mathews said. “People are really disconnected from what it takes to make things.”

Participants of the first fix-it clinic “were thrilled to see an opportunity like this in their own community,” said Danielle Nkojo, a DOEE program analyst.

The department plans to double down on recruiting coaches, expand offerings to include bicycle and electronics repairs, and hold more events in the coming months.

Thinking Bigger

Beyond reducing waste, longtime fix-it clinic organizers say the events can build support for other, much broader sustainability efforts. 

Fix-it clinic guru Peter Mui, who held his first event in Berkeley, California in 2009, has advised approximately 100 municipal governments and libraries on hosting events similar to Washington, D.C.’s clinic.

When organizing the events, Mui said local governments often focus on attracting a large number of participants as a way to demonstrate success. But for him, the goal is to attract and connect fix-it coaches, or participants who could be coaches.

“If you offer free repairs to everybody, everybody loves that. I’m looking to offer something more nuanced,” Mui said. “Even if we are holding fix-it clinics in every city in the United States, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, most stuff that’s fixable would still be ending up in a landfill. So, we have to move upstream and choke this thing off somewhere else.”

By attracting coaches to the mix, Mui said cities can help foster more civic engagement in sustainability efforts. After 10 years of fix-it clinics, Mui is now pushing local governments to think bigger.

Mui envisions libraries as a place where residents could borrow tools for their own fix-it projects. Local governments could demand that in order to do business with them, vendors must agree to allow the cities to repair products themselves. Such agreements could be a catalyst for creating new skill sets among residents, he said.

“Suppose we can start to get cities, communities and state governments to add to requests for proposals for technology, and anything actually, a preference will be given to vendors that can provide us with spare parts, repair manuals and diagnostic tools and allow us to do repairs locally rather than it back to you wherever you might be,” Mui said. “Let’s repair the things we own communally.”

Government or Grassroots

As fix-it clinics proliferate across the country, local governments have taken various approaches to running the events.

In Hennepin County, Minnesota, the monthly events rotate to different neighborhood libraries and recreation centers. Lo said she’s found it important to secure space large enough to accommodate around 20 tables and with access to plenty of electrical outlets.

Recruiting fix-it coach volunteers has been easy since word got out, Lo said. The county works with a rotating roster of volunteers, including many engineers.

“The great thing about this is it sells itself,” Lo said. “It costs hardly anything. It’s all volunteers.”

In Portland, the city’s Department of Planning and Sustainability partners with a volunteer-run group, Repair PDX, to bring skilled fix-it coaches to one of its long-running sustainability events.

Now in its 35th year, the Portland Fix-It Fair offers free workshops on everything from winterizing homes to urban gardening. But since Repair PDX began hosting repair cafés at the fair several years ago, the event has proven to be one of the fair’s most popular offerings. Over the years, fixers have brought everything from weed wackers to elliptical machines to inflatable holiday lawn ornaments back to life, said Wing Grabowski, the department’s sustainable communities program coordinator.

“It’s community members that come in with these skills and repair. We as community members have resources, it doesn’t have to be top down from the government,” Grabowski said.

Portland’s fix-it fairs are held three times a year and cost about $15,000 to host each event, excluding staff time, Grabowski said. In the last year, 1,725 people attended the fairs. The fairs, which began as an initiative to help low-income families weatherize their homes, continue to be targeted to median- to low-income residents.

For cities interested in starting fix-it clinics, Grabowski suggests leveraging community connections to find grassroots efforts that might already be underway. Then, work to elevate them.

“While the repair cafes got started independent of the fix-it fair, the partnership has been great,” he said. “That is community driven. As a government employee, look for that and look for how you can uplift that effort.”

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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