News | 24th Jul, 2011

Stop recycling, start repairing

Sunday, 24 July 2011
Michael Green, The Age

On the mend. Repairing old things creates something new.

A few years ago, Scott Mitchell began accepting busted iPods from all comers, offering to open them up and tinker with their bits. He dubbed the experiment the "iPod Social Outreach Program".

"I fixed over half of them without access to any spare parts, just by taking them apart, cleaning them, seeing if the connections were still OK," he says. "At the start I had no experience — and that was the point."

Mr Mitchell is one of the expert fixers involved in The Repair Workshops, which are open to the public on July 30 and 31, as part of the State of Design Festival.

Co-ordinated by design consultancy Eco Innovators and jewellery repair project The Treasury, the event comprises two parts.

First, a group of artists and technicians will create artworks from broken items that have been donated to charities; and second, the team of fixers will repair or repurpose goods brought in by the public. (Numbers are limited, so you must pre-register on the website to be involved.)

For his PhD research, Mr Mitchell has studied the way people modify mass-produced goods. Over the last decade, he says, products have become increasingly sealed up and unrepairable — designed for the dump, not longevity.

"But because of this restriction in consumer access, there's been a parallel movement to reclaim those rights," he says.

One example is The Repair Manifesto, which was one of the inspirations for the workshops. Conceived by Dutch collective Platform 21, the manifesto's tagline is "Stop Recycling. Start Repairing."

"The idea is that we'll save a lot more energy and consumer waste if products are designed for repair before recycling," Mr Mitchell says.

"The manifesto contends that repair is a productive and positive way to engage with the world — and it's a lot of fun."

Wil Campbell, an industrial designer and another of the collaborators in The Repair Workshops, agrees. He says the need to save virgin resources will only grow more pressing as oil becomes more scarce and expensive.

"Each product existed as resources before it was turned into a product and, in most cases, it's going to continue to exist for many thousands of years after you've finished with it. It's good to make the brief window of usefulness as long as possible."

And you don't need to be an engineer to try; mending household items is well within reach of the average person.

"You can go online and find out how to fix almost anything — so many people are willing to give it a go and post instructions on forums, or videos on YouTube and websites like," he says. "You can skill yourself up on a situation-by-situation basis."

Mr Campbell argues there's a deeper benefit to the practice. The beauty of repair, he says, is that it not only saves money and resources, but also shifts the way we think about products, the way they work and the effort involved in their creation.

"Repairing forces people to engage with the stuff of their life. When you fix something, you develop a relationship with it. It gives you a story to tell.

People like telling stories about products — about the way they use their grandmother's old cookware — and it's that type of thing that is so rewarding."

Get on board and register for a FREE repair session at The Repair Workshops >