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Year-End Special: Repair economy 2.0

We can combat the side effects of consumerism by reviving the right to repair and a culture that celebrates reuse

Tools at a workshop in London. Photo: Getty Images
Tools at a workshop in London. Photo: Getty Images

A man sits on a modified bike, altering clothes, another man repairs the components of a wristwatch with surgical precision, others fix household appliances, shoes and bags, while children learn how to mend their bicycles—all this over rounds of tea and snacks. These are some of the most prominent scenes from Repair Café workshops in Bengaluru.

“People were more connected to things they bought a couple of generations ago and were very hands-on when it came to repair and reuse," says Antara Mukherji, who co-founded Repair Café Bengaluru in November 2015 with Purna Sarkar.

But the skill of repairing is dying slowly, says Sarkar.

“We found a general consensus (among people we interacted with) that skills such as repairing are being looked down upon, and either looked at as a vocation for the uneducated/underprivileged or a mere hobby that does not get any popular support," says Mukherji.

Since its inception, Repair Café Bengaluru has organized 19 workshops where adults pay a programme fee and learn how to repair household things ranging from an iron to an induction top. The organization says it has repaired more than 700 products and saved about 1,300kg of waste from ending up in landfills.

“There is a need to look at repair and frugal innovation as viable problem-solving options," says Mukherji.

Conceived as a way to help people reduce waste, the first Repair Café was organized in October 2009 in Amsterdam by social entrepreneur Martine Postma. Its success prompted her to start the Repair Café Foundation in 2011. Since then, this non-profit organization has helped local groups start their own Repair Cafés—today, there are more than 1,400 such cafés in 33 countries, from the US to Japan. According to the foundation’s 2016 annual report, repairing prevented about 250,000kg of waste from heading to landfills.

Repair and reuse were once very effective tools, says Dunu Roy, 73, an Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, alumnus and founder-director of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre, which provides research support to community and labour organizations.

“As a matter of fact, this sector generated a lot of jobs and its consequent value in production was quite high. But that was a different kind of economy. Ever since the economic reforms, and the subsequent opening up of the Indian economy, what has happened is that this entire business of reusing has come into conflict with the logic of the economy of consumption," says Roy.

Buying new things, then, became easier than ever before, far easier than seeking out used goods or even repairing something that is broken but fixable.

When Bharat and Abhishek Jain started Khilonewala, a toy library, in their hometown Indore in 2011, one objective was to reduce clutter. “My nephew was one-year-old and, like any other child, liked a lot of toys around him. But we noticed that he got bored of them within a week. It is not easy for people to spend money, every time, on expensive toys," says Abhishek. “In the bigger cities today, space is at a premium, and by renting toys, you can save a lot of space."

Khilonewala started as a social project. Today, the brothers have 50 franchises across 35 cities and have delivered more than 131,400 kits to children aged 1-12.

“Apart from the fact that it is cheaper for parents, it is also environment friendly. Most of these toys are made of plastic, so, by reducing their number, you are also reducing the amount of plastic in circulation," says Abhishek.

Today, even as scores of toy libraries across the country provide similar services, a slow revival of the old practices is becoming evident.

Case in point: The Desai sisters, Ayesha and Manisha, co-founders of Cornucopia Concepts Pvt. Ltd, an organization that repurposes old clothes. In their workshops in Gurugram and Pune, everything, barring the machines, is old or acquired from people they know.

Manisha hardly bought new clothes for her daughter Kaanan till the age of three-and-a-half; they were mostly hand-me downs. “I felt bad for the child. She had to wear boys’ clothes," says Ayesha with a smile, referring to one particular shirt that changed hands four times between boys, including her two sons, before it reached Kannan. She has since outgrown it and the shirt has been passed on to a sixth child, another boy.

“It has been a conscious decision, which has been taken after we asked ourselves whether we needed to consume so much and add to the pile of waste every year," says Manisha over the phone from Pune.

“The first thing I ask when I need something is, ‘Must I buy it?’" says Manisha. “Both Ayesha and I, we ask around and if such a thing is lying unused with a friend or a family member, be it utensils or furniture, we take it from them."

Across the country, there are repair shops that can fix everything from a zipper on denims to the Carl Zeiss lens in your latest smartphone camera. In Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti area, Javed Husain Khan repairs and sells old Swiss watches, from Favre-Leuba to Rolex; Nehru Place in Delhi thrives on the economics of repair; some of Mumbai’s best repairwallas are featured in another story; brothers Muhammad Moinuddin and Muhammad Mujeebuddin claim their 80-year-old shop in Chatta Bazaar Road in Hyderabad’s Old City is the ultimate repair destination for vintage radios, record players and cassette decks—the list goes on.

Look at how growth is terms of per capita consumption. So the more energy you consume per capita, the more developed you are considered. As long as we have that as the measure of development, how can we cut down on our waste?- Dunu Roy

The rising problem of waste

Despite a strong reuse/repair culture, the problem of waste is assuming alarming proportions in India. According to a report in Down To Earth magazine earlier this year, urban India produces 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year—31 million tonnes of this is dumped in landfills.

In 2012, the world’s cities generated 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste, amounting to a footprint of 1.2kg per person per day. With rapid population growth and urbanization, municipal waste generation is expected to rise to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025, according to the World Bank.

In Australia, four out of 10 people surveyed by YouGov, an online market research company, said they had put unwanted fashion items in the bin, according to a Guardian report earlier this month.

“As Australian fast-fashion booms to an industry worth $2bn (around Rs12,800 crore a year) a year, the YouGov report found that 75% of Australian adults have thrown clothes away in the past year; 30% tossed more than 10 garments," the Guardian report said. “The throwaway culture is creating a serious environmental problem, with 24% saying they threw out a garment after one wear."

“We have to understand that even if a product is designed for a shorter life, it keeps affecting the environment long after it is in use," says Roy. “Take, for example, automobiles, domestic goods, or office chairs; you’ll find that, increasingly, recyclable materials are being replaced by material that will not degenerate. The bumpers of cars that were made of metal earlier are made from fibreglass and plastic today, which is non-recyclable.

“So, consequently, the logic of non-recyclability or non-repairability means that the product is non-degradable naturally, which will then create larger environmental problems," he says.

In an attempt to change the mindset of excessive consumerism, last year, Sweden’s minister of financial markets and consumer affairs, Per Bolund, spearheaded a 50% tax cut that would make it viable for Swedes to get items such as clothes, shoes and bicycles repaired.

“We believe that this could substantially lower the cost and so make it more rational economic behaviour to repair your goods," a Guardian report quoted Bolund as saying.

File photographs of workshops organized by Repair Café, Bengaluru, at Bhoomi College, Sarjapur. Photo Courtesy: Repair Café, Bengaluru

The tech tangle

A huge pile of the waste that is generated across the world consists of electronic waste. When Antonio Olmos, a freelance news photographer, was working in the Balkans, covering the refugee crisis in 2015, he broke the screen of his iPhone 6. In remote Macedonia, he could not find an authorized Apple service centre, so he went to a local shop and got his phone repaired.

“The phone was working fine and I completely forgot about it," says Olmos. “But a few months later I updated my iOS and I got an Error 53 (the iPhone was rendered useless after the Apple software upgrade tool found that the device had been damaged or repaired by an unauthorised firm)." He was back in London by then. Authorized service centre people told him that Apple had “bricked" the phone as a “safety measure".

“After weeks of complaining, Apple gave in and also stopped the Error 53," says Olmos.

Shouldn’t the right to decide where to get a product repaired lie with the owner of the product, and not the manufacturer? Several companies don’t seem to think so.

In an article on the website of the engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum in October, Kyle Wiens and Gay Gordon-Byrne, two leaders of the “right-to-repair" movement, mention what tractor manufacturer John Deere said, that “in selling a tractor to a farmer, the company didn’t really let go of the tractor—they only granted an ‘implied license’ to operate it. John Deere reserved the right to repair it or say who was going to repair it."

Understandably, farmer groups complained and the US copyright office ruled in their favour in December last year.

But why don’t companies want people to get products repaired, or get them repaired elsewhere?

“For producers of consumer products, it is important that the consumer buys again and again, and for that to happen, the old product has to be discarded every time," says Roy. “As a result, the technology has changed such that the products don’t permit repairs."

At the heart of this debate also lies the issue of intellectual property rights. The moment the manufacturer curbs repair or tampering with its product at independent stores, it prevents hackers from becoming familiar with the product’s software.

Another technological aspect that is proving a hurdle to repair is the intricacy and complexity of design. Take, for example, smartphones; not only are they being packed with newer components to enhance performance, they are also getting sleeker. Gone are the days when you could open the back of a mobile phone and replace its battery. Even a task as simple as that will require a visit to authorized repair shops now; it really doesn’t matter whether it is a Samsung, Apple or Google phone.

File photographs of workshops organized by Repair Café, Bengaluru, at Milton Park. Photo Courtesy: Repair Café, Bengaluru

A circular economy

“The nature of production has changed over the years in a way that manufacturers, especially the larger ones, don’t care about the circular economy," says Roy. “If you look at how growth is measured, it is in terms of per capita consumption. So the more energy you consume per capita, the more developed you are considered. As long as we have that as the measure of development, how can we cut down on our waste?"

Designer Burhan ud din Khateeb agrees. “Capitalism is based on making more for less. That and the concept of infinite growth. They are both flawed," he says.

A National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate, Khateeb has worked with design innovators from Java to Gangtok on sustainable design projects and focuses on promoting such practices in his work too. “Design and technology are meant to make our lives better, but today they have become merely a tool for growth for some organizations which look at monetary gains by exploiting some of the basic human desires, and, in the process, cause suffering and environmental degradation."

The so-called win-win solution for business, with companies recycling non-biodegradable things such as plastic into ropes, is even more dangerous for the environment because that creates nano-particles, says Roy. “People are burning waste to get energy but they don’t realize that they are converting a solid form of toxic waste to a gaseous form that is even more hazardous.

“What we forget to see is, no matter what you throw away, it will come back to you, in forms of solid, liquid or gas, and there is a high cost that you pay for it," adds Roy.

Repair and reuse, therefore, seem our only options for a healthy, sustainable life.

Gayatri Jayaraman contributed to this story.

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