Fixers collectives try to change a ‘throw away society’ habit

Apr 7, 2013, 5:38 PM | Updated: Apr 9, 2013, 9:44 am
Patrick Dunn, left, and Michael Broili run one of several fixers collectives in the Puget Sound are...
Patrick Dunn, left, and Michael Broili run one of several fixers collectives in the Puget Sound area. They encourage people to learn to fix household items, like coffee makers and lamps, rather than tossing them out. (Linda Thomas photo)
(Linda Thomas photo)

The coffee maker stops working. That’s annoying. What do you do?

Most of us would toss it in the trash and pick up a new one at the store on the way home from work.

A growing group of people would instead unplug the coffee maker, get out a screwdriver, take it apart, figure out what’s wrong, and fix it.

The concept of “fixer’s collectives” or “repair cafes” started in the Netherlands originally and came to the Bronx several years ago. Now there are a handful of them in the Puget Sound area.

People get together about once a month to meet over coffee and bring in items they would like to have repaired. Members learn how to fix the items or watch other volunteers who are handy at repairing everything from broken lamps and lawnmowers to microwaves and mixers.

The idea is simple – take a moment before throwing something away to figure out if you can save it somehow and prevent yourself from having to buy a replacement.

“If it’s broken, it’s broken and you’re not going to use it anyway. You should at least take it apart and figure out how it works,” says Patrick Dunn, program director of the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA), which held its first fixers collective class last week.

Dunn is better at fixing things than he is at flying a toy remote-control helicopter.

“I crashed it into a wall, or floor, or ceiling, all three actually and it just stopped working,” he says. “They don’t design them so you can take it apart and just fiddle with them; they design it so that after you crash it a few times you go buy a new one.”

He has a teeny-tiny screw driver kit in the PNA tool center – which also has museum pieces – to take the toy apart and restore it so someone can use it again.

“A lot of times there are parts that can be salvaged,” Dunn says. “We took apart a digital camera once and found a little gear that was worn down. To replace that part didn’t make financial sense, but if you look at a digital camera it has a mini microphone, it has a video screen. It has all these different parts you can use on other projects.”

The fixers are trying to change habits and attitudes that have been around for almost six decades.

Life Magazine published an article titled “Throwaway Living” in 1955, where they first used the term “throw-away society” and described a new era of disposable living.

“Probably around the time that plastics became really popular in manufacturing we started seeing things thrown away rather than repaired,” Dunn says. “Designed obsolescence came into the picture and that’s around the time we started throwing things away and buying them new instead of trying to figure out how they worked.”

The Life Magazine article mentioned a new generation who didn’t have to spend hours upon hours trying to repair things that were “no longer useful.”

“We stopped seeing other people fixing things. It used to be you’d walk buy neighbors and see a group of people sitting around a car fixing stuff, so it was a real welcoming process and you knew if they could do that to a car, you could fix things around your house,” Dunn says. “We stopped seeing that. That’s something we’re trying to bring back to this fixers collective.”

It’s easy to see the results of our throw-away society at any garbage transfer station in the region, where every weekend you can hear the crashing of household items being chucked into a pit.

Many of those items end up at King County’s 920-acre Cedar Hills Regional Landfill which receives over 800,000 tons of solid waste a year.

Some of those involved in the fixers collective repair items because they want to save the environment and their own wallets.

“I’ve been doing it most of my life. I was raised with it. We came from a poor family and we fixed everything,” says Michael Broili, director of PNA’s Well Home Program. “I get a sense of accomplishment out of it – good I can keep it running another four years and save myself a few bucks.”

For Dunn, there’s a joy to bringing something back to life.

“I remember there was a broken espresso maker and it was a couple hundred dollar gadget, and it turned out to be a $1 part that we put in and fixed it and it worked,” says Dunn. “It was kind of like magic, but the reality is it’s not magic. It’s a matter of getting out the screw driver and learning how things work.”



Phinney Neighborhood Association fixers collective

And the organization they’re modeled after, the West Seattle Fixers Collective


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Fixers collectives try to change a ‘throw away society’ habit