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Repair: From Forgotten Skill to Icon of the Circular Economy

The repairman is representative of how opportunities to earn a living wage since the Greatest Generation returned from war have changed.

Life’s circumstances can present us with the need to assist a parent or loved one downsize and relocate to a new residence. The process churns up a mix of emotions. The toughest part for both parties is the sorting and redistribution of a lifetime of accumulated possessions.

After three such moves, I can speak from experience that sentimentality can get in the way of practicality. Quite unexpectedly, nostalgia struck me most with day to day life’s mundane objects. A sewing basket and button box, which were always at hand. A neatly folded bag of cleaning rags, remnants of yesterday’s linens and t-shirts salvaged for one last use. A box of electrical tape, wire, cords, tiny bulbs, specialty brushes and screwdrivers, hinting at past projects. Scads of containers used to preserve leftovers for another meal.

As we decided to keep, donate or discard the commonplace items took on a new perspective. They spoke volumes of endangered practices, values and social norms. Here were the remains of a generation taught to care for and repair “built-to-last” products and, when all else failed, repurpose them. In contrast, millions of tons of clothing and shoes are now discarded annually. Some never worn. Paper towels and wipes replace cloth rags. More than 40 percent of the food we purchase goes uneaten and wasted.

Most enlightening of these found treasures was a faded telephone address book. In it were pages flagged with the contact information for local handymen and small appliance repair shops. These were folks we knew, familiar throughout the community for their skills and personalized service. Their businesses were truly ingrained in the local economy often growing only by word of mouth. Sadly, local appliance stores are now fewer and their services limited. Repair services are fading like the pages of that address book.

The repairman is representative of how opportunities to earn a living wage since the Greatest Generation returned from war have changed. Then, President Eisenhower advised the country to buy more stuff to support the economy. Aggressive marketing, planned obsolescence and periods of prosperity took the baby boomers and subsequent generations down a path foreign to our predecessors. Today, we frequently repurchase and replace goods that in another era would otherwise have lasted for much longer. Mass production by a lower paid global workforce and distribution though large retailers satisfied our purchasing appetites and budgets.

We not only bought, but also discarded more, evidenced in the unprecedented escalation of the waste generation rate post 1960, which peaked in 1990 and has remained relatively consistent to date. To ease our consciences for otherwise being wasteful, we demanded recyclability, overlooking that recycling is just another end of pipeline option. Recycling-centric policies can inadvertently promote consumption. By failing to focus more on design for reuse, repair, and refurbishment product life cycles and related resources are not optimized. Replacement parts for small appliances and other electronic devices are not always available on the open market and, in some cases, not manufactured at all.

Consequently, we contributed to the demise of a number of skillsets once introduced in high schools as honorable occupations. What we got instead is a situation where young adults pursue higher education only to end up in debt deeper than their resulting occupations can ever warrant. Those with more limited choices work in multiple low paying service jobs. Yet an even greater unfortunate group revert to criminal activities to pay their bills. None are able to make the types of purchases like automobiles and new home construction that contribute to the strength of the economy.

We’re not alone. High incidences of unemployment and poverty affect youth in the European Union and Great Britain as well. This in part was a catalyst for Brexit. The EU countries are working to redesign the way things work with a concept called the Circular Economy. Fundamental to the core of the Circular Economy, according to one of its biggest proponents the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is the need to design products that can be 'made to be made again.' In other words, key components of certain retired products would be reused in their existing form when manufacturing new models complete with all of the updated technology and features. This differs from simply refurbishing an older model. In a true closed loop system, products will retain physical features that facilitate their reuse. The theory is labor intensive dismantling and reassembling will result in more jobs. These positions will be in industrial/light manufacturing settings The applications with the greatest promise are in the automotive, appliance and electronics industries.

Higher labor costs could increase the purchase price. To offset the impact of the initial investment, consumers may opt in to renewal plans that would offer discounts or benefits for returning old products when repurchasing from the same manufacturer.

That brings us back to our local repairman. To be able to reintroduce key components back into the manufacturing process, function will have to prevail over form. Without purely cosmetic changes in product design made that added little in operative improvements, consumers are expected to have minor malfunctions repaired more often, thus avoiding the higher repurchase price for as long as possible. A recent survey conducted in six countries, including the USA, confirms that mobile phone consumers are dissatisfied with the high frequency at which new models are introduced. Instead they are clamoring for greater reparability.

If you can’t imagine the rebirth of local economies where consumers seek out maintenance and repair over bright shiny and new purchases, consider this. Since 2010, a movement originating in Amsterdam has spread globally. Known as Repair Cafés, they draw local talent with the skills to fix specific items, it varies by community, and those with toaster ovens, waffle irons, food processors, furniture, and clothing in need of repair. To compensate for the lack of replacement parts, some repair cafés have begun to use 3D printers to produce replications. Thousands of repair cafés already exist and more are opening.

Small community recycling centers are following a natural evolution by co-locating complementary cottage industries that could benefit from access to usable items misdirected to the recycling stream. These may include small appliance repair, upholstery and furniture repair, tailors, seamstresses and another popular trend, tool libraries. Free tool lending programs function the same as traditional book libraries, except with hammers, saws, drills, etc. The idea is to provide the resources needed to make it easier for residents to complete repairs and modifications to their homes and businesses. Tool libraries commonly offer “how-to” events to encourage novice do-it-yourselfers.

Count me as one whose talents supported replacement and repurchases. Convinced that I’ll benefit from access to skilled repair services, I’m anxiously waiting for the circular economy to catch on. Until then, I’m going back to that recently inherited sewing basket to relearn to thread and use a needle. Oh, and for dinner, I’ll proudly be serving leftovers. For clean-up? The life cycle analysis on cloth versus paper is still a dead heat.

So, sorry mom, paper towels rule in my kitchen and hubby’s old concert t-shirts are safe for another year.

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.

TAGS: Generators
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