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Embattled Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold resigns

Washington (CNN)Rep. Blake Farenthold announced he’s resigning from the House of Representatives effective Friday, […]

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Can we fix it? The repair cafes waging war on throwaway culture

When fixing items is actively discouraged by manufacturers, recycling becomes a political act, say Repair Cafe volunteers

A vacuum cleaner, a hair straightener, a laptop, Christmas lights, an e-reader, a blender, a kettle, two bags, a pair of jeans, a remote-control helicopter, a spoon, a dining-room chair, a lamp and hair clippers. All broken.

It sounds like a pile of things that youd stick in boxes and take to the tip. In fact, its a list of things mended in a single afternoon by British volunteers determined to get people to stop throwing stuff away.

This is the Reading Repair Cafe, part of a burgeoning international network aimed at confronting a world of stuff, of white goods littering dumps in west Africa and trash swilling through the oceans in huge gyres.

The hair clippers belong to William, who does not want to give his surname but cheerfully describes himself as mechanically incompetent. He has owned them for 25 years, but 10 years ago they stopped working and they have been sitting unused in his cupboard ever since.

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He sits down at the table of Colin Haycock, an IT professional who volunteers at the repair cafe, which has been running monthly for about four years and is a place where people can bring all manner of household items to be fixed for free. In less than five minutes, Haycock has unscrewed and removed the blades, cleaned out some gunk from inside the machine, oiled the blades, and screwed it all back together. The clippers purr happily.

William looks sheepish; Haycock looks pleased. I wish they were all that simple, he says.

Today, the repairers will divert 24kg of waste from going to landfill and save 284kg of CO2. Some items cant be fixed on the spot notably a hunting horn split in two, which requires soldering with a blow torch but very little needs to be thrown away.

Gabrielle Stanley, who used to run a clothing alterations business, says she was drawn to volunteering at the repair cafe to combat the throwaway culture she sees. You go into certain stores… – she throws a dark look – how they can sell clothes for that price, when I couldnt even buy the fabric for that much? And then you hear about things that happen [in the factories] in the far east.

Sophie Unwin, the co-founder of the Remakery in Brixton and the founder of Edinburgh Remakery has been inundated with inquiries about setting up similar enterprises abroad. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

An estimated 300,000 tonnes of clothing was sent to landfill in the UK in 2016 and a report from Wrap puts the average lifespan for a piece of clothing in the UK at 3.3 years.

Globally, the amount of e-waste generated is expected to hit 50m tonnes by the end of 2018. This is partly driven by consumers eagerness for new products, but there are also concerns about built-in obsolescence, in which manufacturers design products to break down after a certain amount of time and are often difficult or expensive to fix. In December, Apple admitted to slowing older models of phones, though it claimed it did this for operational not obsolescence reasons.


Repair cafe volunteer Stuart Ward says that when fixing items is actively discouraged by manufacturers, repair becomes a political act. He is vehement about the right to repair, a movement opposed to the practices of companies like the machinery company John Deere, which, under copyright laws, doesnt allow people to fix their own equipment or take them to independent repairers.

You own your equipment, youre allowed to take a screwdriver to it and play with it, he says. Its something fundamental.

Teaching people how to fix their own gear is at the heart of the Edinburgh Remakery, a store on the main street of Leith that is part repair shop, part secondhand store, part repair education centre.

We do the repair in front of a customer, not out in the back, not hidden, says Sotiris Katsimbas, the lead IT technician at the Remakery. To do this, Katsimbas and his team conduct one-to-one IT repair appointments for a small fee, as do their colleagues who specialise in sewing and furniture repairs.

Its a matter of confidence. Its not magic. Someone put it together, someone can take it apart, you only need a Phillips screwdriver and some knowledge, says Katsimbas as he shows Daniel Turner how to open up his laptop so he can clean out the fluff and dust that is causing the machine to overheat.

Since it opened in 2012, the Remakery has diverted 205 tonnes of waste that would have ended up in landfill. But the Remakery is unique in that, unlike much of the repair movement, which is volunteer-led, it is a viable business, employing 11 staff and 10 freelancers. Last year the shop had an income of 236,000 30% from grants, 70% generated through sales of furniture and electronics, workshops and repair appointments.

Quick guide

Further reading

Fix it

If you want to learn how to fix your electronics, the Restart Project runs events to teach people, you can see where their events are here.

Borrow it

If you want to fix something round the house, but don’t have the tools you need and can’t afford to buy them for a one-off job, you can find a local tool library where you can hire what you need.

Read it

Michelle McGagh spent a year without buying new things, which involved a fair amount of fixing as well as going without, her experiences make for fascinating reading.

Photograph: Nastco/iStockphoto

The financial viability of the shop makes it attractive as a model. In the last year, Sophie Unwin, the co-founder of the Remakery in Brixton and the founder of Edinburgh Remakery is setting up the Remakery network to replicate the work internationally.

She has had 53 inquiries from groups interested in setting up similar enterprises in the US, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, Austria, Ireland, Germany, Australia and elsewhere in the UK.

The network will provide toolkits and advice to groups who want to recreate what she has done in Edinburgh. Unwin hopes that these resources will allow other groups to do in two years what it has taken eight years of trial and error and extremely hard graft to achieve.

For repairers, fixing things is a way of doing something about an obsession with consumerism that Unwin calls a kind of sickness in society.

This is our little attempt to push a little bit in this direction, says Ward. To say, we can fix this, we can repair things, dont give up hope.

This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the worlds most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at

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Why Are There Few Women in Tech? Watch a Recruiting Session

Each autumn, businesses flock to elite universities like Harvard and Stanford to recruit engineers for their first post-university jobs. Curious students pile into classrooms to hear recruiters deliver their best pitches. These are the first moments when prospective employees size up a company’s culture and assess whether they can see themselves reflected in its future.

More often than not, this is the moment when these companies screw up, according to new research.

Tech companies have employed a host of tactics to help lift the scant number of women and minorities who work within their ranks, like anti-bias training, affinity groups, and software that scans job postings for gendered language. Yet the numbers remain dire. Of men with science, technology engineering, or math (STEM) degrees, 40 percent work in technical careers; only 26 percent of women with STEM degrees do. That means that qualified women are turning away from the field before they even get started.

Some of the problems start in these preliminary recruiting sessions, which routinely discourage women from applying at all, according to a paper published in February by Alison Wynn, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and Stanford sociology professor Shelley Correll.

In 2012 and 2013, researchers attended 84 introductory sessions held by 66 companies at an elite West Coast university. (They never explicitly name Stanford, but …) Roughly a quarter of attendees at these one-hour sessions were women, on average. The researchers documented an unwelcoming environment for these women, including sexist jokes and imagery, geeky references, a competitive environment, and an absence of women engineers—all of which intimidated or alienated female recruits. “We hear from companies there’s a pipeline problem, that there just aren’t enough people applying for jobs. This is one area where they are able to influence that,” Wynn says. They just don’t.

The chilling effect, according to Wynn, starts with the people companies send to staff recruiting sessions. As students entered, women were often setting up refreshments or raffles and doling out the swag in the back; the presenters were often men, and they rarely introduced the recruiters. If the company sent a female engineer, according to the paper, she often had no speaking role; alternatively, her role was to speak about the company’s culture, while her male peer tackled the tech challenges. Of the sessions Wynn’s research team observed, only 22 percent featured female engineers talking about technical work. When those women did speak, according to the sessions observed, male presenters tended to interrupt them.

Similarly, the follow-up question-and-answer periods were often dominated by male students who commandeered the time, using it to show off their own deep technical know-how in a familiar one-upmanship. Rather than acting as a facilitator for these sessions, male presenters were often drawn into a competitive volley. Wynn and Correll describe one session in which men asked 19 questions and women asked none. Of the five presenters, the two men fielded all the questions while the two female engineers spoke very little; finally, a female recruiter jumped in at the end with application instructions. This clearly didn’t entice female attendees. Of the 51 men attending, only one left the room during the Q&A. Four of the 15 women left.

The paper also describes recruiters using gender stereotypes. One online gaming company showed a slide of a woman wearing a red, skin-tight dress and holding a burning poker card to represent its product. Another company, which makes software to help construct computer graphics, only showed pictures of men—astronauts, computer technicians, soldiers. Presentations were often replete with pop-culture images intended to help them relate to students but instead furthered gender stereotypes. One internet startup, for example, showed an image of Gangnam-style music videos that featured a male artist surrounded by scantily clad women.

In an attempt to appear approachable, presenters often made comments that disparaged women or depicted them as sexualized objects rather than talented technical colleagues. For example, in one session, a man mentioned the “better gender ratio” at the company’s Los Angeles office compared with its Silicon Valley office. “I had no girlfriends at [University Name], but now I’m married,” he said, suggesting that the better odds had helped get him hitched.

This type of informal banter occasionally devolved into overtly sexualized comments. One presenter from a small startup mentioned porn a couple of times. Another, when talking about a project that would allow banking on ships, suggested that sailors needed access to cash for prostitutes.

The few sessions that featured women speaking on technical subjects had fewer such problems. When these women spoke on technical issues—and connected those issues to real-world impact—female students were much more engaged. In these sessions, female students asked questions 65 percent of the time, compared with 36 percent of the sessions without these features.

While the Stanford research looks explicitly at gender, its findings have broader implications. Namely: First impressions are everything. To attract a more diverse workforce, companies need to present themselves as diverse communities of professionals. Wynn says she has presented this research to recruiters and people within tech firms. “They’re astonished. They often just don’t know what’s going on in their recruiting sessions,” she says. Knowing where your problems lie is the first step to eradicating them before they block your pipeline.

Opening the Door

  • A female engineer explains how to encourage talented girls to pursue careers in technology.
  • Amid a booming tech sector and a tight job market, women in tech have a little more power to speak out about harassment.
  • The president of Harvey Mudd College discusses how the school has lifted the share of women in computer science to 40 percent, from 10 percent.

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