Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia
Keywords: repair; share; waste management strategies; design; community building.
Abstract: Waste is progressively prevailing but persistently ignored in conditions of abundance and material comfort; unquestionably, that which the modern discourse of living standards especially in developed societies has generated, is an inability to confront the consequences of an ever-accelerating product redundancy economy. The necessity for the recognition of this condition in the context of a Western city (Brisbane, Australia) led to the design and realisation of a research project titled ‘Handled With Care: Developing The Paradigm Of A Culture Of Repair And Share’. The aim of this project was to create possibilities of engaging Brisbane’s residents in dematerialising practices such as repairing and sharing via giving them access to an up-to-date inventory of the existing businesses of repair and organisations of share in central Brisbane. By identifying not only longevity and emotional durability but also dematerialisation as waste management strategies its goal was to encourage people to re-evaluate the use of their material belongings and re-direct their consumption routines.
For the realisation of the project the descriptive case study method was adopted and for its purposes, an online map of the ‘repair and share’ geography of central Brisbane was created, which was embedded on a digital platform (website) and an Application (App).
In conclusion, the findings of this project revealed an existing community of repairers and sharers who were willing to be included in the project and provide valuable material, and exposed current repairing and sharing trends as well as the neighbourhoods where these phenomena have an active presence.
The linkage between waste and unsustainability was detected as early as individual researchers, governmental bodies and world commissions started to identify the consequences of global development and three centuries of industrial activity. In 1972 the book ‘Limits to Growth’, provided estimations in regard to where the development of the material economy could lead and warned that the combination of emissions and the exhaustion of natural resources could have detrimental effects on humanity. In 2004, an updated version of the book demonstrated that, despite international and governmental environmental policies and Westerners’ habitual changes, humanity had exceeded nature’s limits and environmental waste was overtaking the planet while natural resources were reaching alarmingly low levels (Meadows et al., 2004). A year before, John Gertsakis and Helen Lewis, in their discussion paper on waste management hierarchy (2003), made the same statement and additionally stressed the importance of promoting dematerialisation as a strategy to reduce waste. Dematerialisation can be defined in a number of ways; in relation to waste, Herman et al. (1989, p. 51) addressed it as ‘…the change in the amount of waste generated per unit of industrial products’. For the purposes of this paper dematerialisation will refer to a practice that requires deliberation on and awareness of materiality’s sustaining role for all forms of life (Kalantidou, 2015).
The case study
Despite designers (Moles & Jacobus, 1988; Poole & Simon, 1997; Tonkinwise, 2004), scientists (Von Weizsäcker, 1998) and economists (Ayres & Simonis, 1994; Cogoy, 2004) acknowledging dematerialisation as a waste management practice and the shift from products to services as an approach that could minimise consumption and production, recycling and up-cycling continue to dominate the sustainability discourse as the main practices of ‘damage-control’. And while dematerialisation literature has indicated that people should adopt a ‘maintenance mentality’ (Moles & Jacobus, 1988, p.26), replace products with services and use of networks (Poole & Simon, 1997), embrace ‘using instead of owning’ and ‘repairing and servicing’ (Cogoy, 2004 p.169-70), still, there is not enough research evidence to support a structural and habitual change towards that direction. Accordingly, re-coding the ‘outmoded’ and the ‘used’ as non-redundant and sharing what is temporarily not needed are not even part of the ‘transition’ discussion that currently dominates architectural conferences and design round tables.
The limited number of publications that supports repair and re-use as waste management strategies identifies the invisibility of relevant practices (Graham & Thrift, 2007; Edgerton, 2008), points out how disposal and replacement are systemically reinforced (for instance, it is cheaper to replace broken goods than try to fix them in advanced economies) (Edgerton, 2008) and highlights the significance of cognitive and practical skills that maintenance entails (Sennet, 2008; Sassen cited in Amin, 2013). Furthermore, some researchers provide successful examples that demonstrate how repair and share work as waste management practices in underdeveloped countries such as India (Doron, 2012) and Egypt (Hofmann, 1986). In these contexts, fixing and sharing are part of an informal network driven by conditions of poverty and lack of means and play a key-role in everyday living; second hand clothes and repairing a broken phone are taken for granted not out of choice but out of necessity. Without being conscious acts of sustainable behaviour they lead to a great deal of elimination of waste by people using up goods. Their relation to materiality comes out of real, non-fabricated needs, and it is of great importance for this condition to arrive in wealthier countries.
From a Westernised perspective, the examples found in literature, which are indirectly related to repair such as Emotionally Durable Design (Chapman, 2005; Van Hinte, 1997), the rise of Do It Yourself (DIY) and the commodification of fixing (for example, the availability of fixing mouldable glue Sugru in ten different colours) follow a more instrumental approach, greatly impacted by the post-industrial, capitalist model of living. Despite the fact that they are successfully putting an anti-consumerist front, by promoting an uncritical attachment to artefacts they encourage a mentality not rooted in understanding the degree of which life is dependent on material resources. They remain reluctant to go beyond tokenism and put their efforts into stripping away sign value from things and as a result, people hold on to the old under the banner of product ‘longevity’, whilst acquiring the new.
The issue of ‘visibility’ as addressed by researchers and theorists that have negotiated issues of repair and re-use inspired the mapping of the culture of repair and share in Brisbane, Australia. A research project titled ‘Handled with Care: Developing the paradigm of a culture of repair and share 1 ’, was conducted so as to explore a modern, urbanised milieu (central suburbs of Brisbane) in order to discover the number and kinds of repair and share facilities and depict them on a map incorporated in a custom-made digital platform and an application (App). Via the digital platform the project aimed to introduce to Brisbane’s audiences an alternative option to consumerism by making more accessible information on businesses and organisations, which provide services of repair and share. Finally, by integrating an experiential forum in the digital platform the aspiration was to invite an exchange of information, knowledge, skills and anecdotes so as to make people familiar with practices that contribute to the reduction of waste (Kalantidou, 2015).
The descriptive case study (Yin, 2014) was chosen as the method for the assessment of the facilities of repair and share and its design was based on the conceptual framework that was generated from a literature review.
Scholarly articles, published studies, books and other sources on topics such as dematerialisation, waste management, repair and maintenance, user’s experience and design for behavioural change, informal learning, social practices for sustainability and sustainable policies were reviewed, as well as information relevant to existing similar activities that have been taking place in various places around the globe (Fixers collective, New York – Repair cafes, Netherlands, UK, Belgium, India – Repair parties, San Francisco) and in Australia (Tool and Toy libraries, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne – The Bower re-use and repair centre, Sydney). Case studies from the retail sector (for example, ‘Nudie jeans’ repair policy) were also examined.
The conceptual framework that was generated from the literature review enabled the establishment of a protocol prior to the data collection that included an outline of the project, field processes, research questions formed through the reviewed readings and cases, and a description of the final report’s format. The main questions were related to what kind of facilities exist, how many, where, with which particular characteristics and if there were any obstacles inhibiting the development of a culture of repair and share. During this preliminary phase, twenty-five suburbs were designated as the physical locations of the study (Central Business District of Brisbane according to the University of Queensland and zone one and two according to Translink2).
The prospective participant facilities were identified via yellow pages, search engines, blogs and articles related to repair and share. The repair of artefacts and the provision of sharing services defined the criteria for their identification. In regards to repair, the artefacts were divided into three groups: electronics, furniture and clothing/shoes.
Documents, interviews and photographs of artefacts were collected as sources of evidence during the field study, which took place between September and November of 2014. The interviews were structured and had the form of questionnaires with open-ended questions that were generated from the literature review. Prior to the field visits, the prospective participants were contacted via phone-call and/or email and all the visits were prescheduled. The field visits were conducted by predefined pairs of volunteer researchers, who provided consent forms and information sheets to the participants, carried out the interviews, collected relevant documents (price lists, policies, etc.) and took photos of the means of repair and the physical locations. The interviews were recorded and the researchers kept diaries with personal observations. The collection of data process was realised after ethical clearance was acquired (Protocol number: QCA/06/14/HREC) (Kalantidou, 2015).
The facilities that were identified through the aforementioned mediums (Table 1) were 101 from which five did not match the criteria (repair or sharing facility within the studied area), 16 couldn’t be reached (were closed down or changed location and details), one practice allowed the researchers to take photos but did not agree on participating in the study and 40 facilities did not want to be part of the online platform (either because of schedule conflicts or for reasons that were not mentioned to the researchers). From the 101 identified facilities 39 agreed to participate in the study and appear on the online map from which 13 (33%) were clothing/shoes repair facilities, 8 (20.51%) furniture repair facilities, 6 (15.38%) electronics repair facilities and 12 (30.77%) sharing facilities.
Table 2 provides a description of the population demographics 3 concerning the investigated groupings (repair and sharing facilities).
In regard to the participant facilities, the most interesting findings are in relation to furniture repair facilities. From the investigated suburbs, 33.72% of their inhabitants have access to participant and non-participant furniture repair facilities. The data shows that their weighted average of household income is lower than the median and a relatively low percentage of residents hold a university education. Nonetheless, the unemployment rate is average. The income level of investigated suburbs’ inhabitants who have access to the participant furniture repair facilities (15.94%) is inferior to the rest of the groupings and the same goes for their educational status but not for the degree of unemployment, which appears to be below the median. On the contrary, the furniture repair facilities that did not agree to participate in the study are located in areas where the weighted average of household income is comparatively the highest, the percentages of residents that have acquired tertiary education are above average and the unemployment rate is among the highest.
Noteworthy were the data generated from the ‘electronics’ grouping. 44% of the residents living in the suburbs included in the study who can repair their electronic devices to a facility nearby, is comparatively among the youngest, the richest and the most well-educated; additionally, they are affected by average rates of unemployment. From them, 15.09%, with income close to the median and a high rate of university degrees, lives within the reach of the participant electronics repair facilities that are located in areas of low unemployment. The relatively high number of electronics repair facilities that chose not to participate in the study is located in suburbs where residents have high income and tertiary education, are of age below the median and are impacted by an average rate of unemployment.
There were a lot of similarities between the populations of the participant and non- participant clothing/shoes repair facilities except the fact that the residents of the suburbs that agreed to be part of the study have significantly higher incomes than the ones that reside in suburbs with non-included facilities.
Finally, from the sharing facilities, the participant ones correspond to 32.7% of the total facilities, a percentage, which is significantly higher than the 12.1% of the non- participant facilities. What is remarkable is that the income of the residents living in the suburbs of the non-participant sharing facilities are not as high as that of the ones that live in the suburbs with facilities that participated in the study.
Besides the population demographics, the method of descriptive statistics was also used for the depiction of the evidence collected from the interviews. Categorical aggregation 1 was adopted as the strategy for the content analysis of the answers, the findings of which will not be presented in this paper.
The information generated from the questionnaires used for the interviews (Table 3) showed that half of the sharing facilities operate on a fee/membership basis whereas half do not charge their members. Almost all of them hold community activities (91.67%) and a notable number runs educational workshops (83.33%). Impressively, all of them follow social responsibility practices (concession etc.) and 83.33% re-uses underused space.
The repair clothing/shoes facilities (Table 4) follow in great majority waste management practices (84.60%), and almost all charge for their services (84.6%). A 69.20% of them offer apprentices and 46.15% conducts educational workshops. The repairers are mostly people who were taught their craft within the family or had exposure to traditional knowledge (69.20%). In addition, social responsibility practices are equally adopted and not adopted by the facilities (46.15% respectively).
The repair furniture facilities (table 5) demonstrate a common, positive approach towards waste management practices (100%) and they all receive a fee for their services. Surprisingly, only one accepts apprentices (12.50%) and in respect to informal learning and traditional knowledge 62.50% of the participants has been trained under these circumstances. A small percentage, in comparison to other repair facilities, has established social responsibility practices (37.50%).
Waste management practices are part of the activities of the electronics repair facilities (83.33%) (Table 6). For most of them fee is required (83.33%) and a minority trains unskilled people (33.33%). The same percentage depicts the facilities that follow social responsibility practices.
The analysis of the collected data brought to surface a culture of repair and share that demonstrates characteristics of anti-wasteful behaviour, community-oriented mentality and appreciation of practical skills. Notwithstanding it has not found a predominant place within society yet, it holds the potential to become a leading apparatus towards extending the life of artefacts via maintenance and reuse. The fact that a number of repair facilities chose not to appear on the online platform 1 and App 2 discloses an unawareness of the value of their skilling attributes and contribution to minimising disposal. From a different perspective, the sharing facilities provide an example of action based on understanding the profound consequences of wasteful conduct. As a result, a high percentage of sharing facilities were willing to appear on the digital map, a stance that depicts a desire to grow and to welcome more people to a mode of living grounded in object exchange and redeployment.
Likewise, the population demographics’ analysis exposed a thought-provoking suburb distribution of participant and non-participant facilities that indicates a mixed perception of the significations of repair and share. To clarify, the percentage of participant sharing facilities located in suburbs where people of high incomes and higher education reside, suggests that sharing is not seen as a practice for the disadvantaged. Nonetheless, in similar conditions of financial and educational status, electronics and furniture repair facilities appeared reluctant to be identified as part of the culture of repair and share.
As has been noted in this paper, its intention was to describe a phenomenon and present as many of its facets as possible. The limited resources, time and number of the investigated facilities as well as the non-explanatory character of the research project correspondingly led to indicative suggestions and comments, and not solid conclusions. It generated though a cartographic representation that illustrates the existence of the facilities that were willing to become visible through the custom-made digital mediums of this study. This opens the way to expand the discovering and mapping of cultures of repair and share outside central Brisbane, and develop the project further by initiating skilling workshops and sharing events.
The author would like to express her gratitude to the volunteer researchers (Zoë Appel, Maddy Dwight, Melanie Gupta, Emma Hodgson, Kara Simpson, Akira Sutton and Luke Thomasson), Rebecca Barnett and Lennah Kuskoff that made feasible the realisation of this research project.
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