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Quick question: what’s a repair cafe, and how does it work?

As the UK slowly begins to realise the nightmarish impact of single-use anything, we turn to the University of St Andrews to learn about a new monthly operation allowing people to drop in and get their kit fixed. 

When did the idea for the Repair Café begin? Was this student or staff led?

The idea came about as as direct result of the fabulous Dairsie Repair Café launching not far from us, last summer. It came to fruition when we shared the Project Officer role at Transition University St Andrews and successfully applied for funding to cover venue hire and refreshments for ten cafes over 12 months, and progressed from there.

Are there any rules and regulations around what can and cannot be brought in for repair? 

We have had two repair cafes so far and offered electricals repairs, which people write to us about in advance so we can check with the staff whether the problem is likely to be fixable – managing expectations.

We also have volunteers on sewing machines turning their hands to all kinds of damaged clothes or items needing taken in. People have also brought in some unexpected things we’ve managed to fix on site, including the knob on a saucepan lid, an earring and a jammed lock on a safe. It’s really fun seeing what people fish out of their bags.

How is the café staffed? 

Our two electrical repairers are not professionals but have developed skills through a keen interest in electricals. Our sewers have a similar background. We have had more specialist repairers come along to mend musical instruments and ceramics, and plan to expand this as and when people come forward with specific items to repair. We’ve been asked about suitcases, a doll’s house and rush seat chairs.

We are also keen to develop an advisory service to include IT devices, with technicians coming in from the University and hopefully local businesses too, sharing knowledge about what is and isn’t possible, basic device maintenance, how to dispose of tech safely and responsibly and information on refurbished devices.

We also have a cobbler who talks to people about shoe and bag repairs – demand for the former having dropped off over the years; a worrying trend. And we hope to develop interest in garden tool maintenance, general tool repair and offer advice on energy efficiency. We’d love to show people how to rewire a plug, change a fuse, change a tap washer, or clear a blocked sink pipe. These ideas are all still in development.

woman in black long sleeve shirt covering her face with her hands

What has the response been like?

People just love it. They are so appreciative of the time these wonderful volunteers give up to come and help out people in their community. Repairing electricals, clothes, ceramics, musical instruments, shoes, bags or anything else keeps these items out of the bin and saves people a lot of money. Some items can be of great sentimental value, others have high monetary value. And nobody wants to see anything needlessly thrown away.

Good practice according to the International Repair Café Movement places responsibility for the items brought in for repair on the owner, rather than the repairer, so individuals sit with the repairer to learn about what they’re doing and in some cases, how to repair that item for themselves next time. One lady brought in a very expensive mixer that she thought was broken but it just needed a new fuse. Now she knows how to change it for herself next time.

Are there any aims or targets in place for the café?

Our aim is to remain free, and open monthly (ten months out of 12) to staff and students at the University of St Andrews but also the wider community. We are collecting data on what we are able to keep in play –and out of landfill or recycling – and feeding this into the campaign and lobbying work of the Restart Project.

They use data to demonstrate to policy makers and manufacturers just how much demand there is for things to be fixed and just how many electricals are not fixable because you either can’t physically get into the item to diagnose the problem, or you simply can’t get hold of a replacement part.

How important do you think it is for people to end the new-for-old approach to consumerism?

So important. If you start thinking along these lines then you will become more vigilant before you buy. You’ll check that an electrical item or a pair of shoes are repairable, that an item of clothing or a bag is good enough quality to stand the test of time, because repairs are expensive if you go to a local tailor and take time and skill to do yourself. And you’ll understand the value of a refurbished device. Your confidence in the second-hand market may grow, and you will recognise that certain electrical manufacturers, clothes and shoe brands are likely to outlast cheaper alternatives, even if bought pre-loved.

More quick questions: 

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Quick question: what policies should we prioritise to tackle plastic pollution?

Images: University of St Andrew’s Repair Cafe (top) / Elisa Ventur (bottom)

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