Sheffield has embraced repairing and recycling - but more action is needed to tackle throwaway culture

In the past if a household gadget was broken people would make do and mend and only throw it away as a last resort. Times have changed, and now our throw-away culture is creating an unnecessary financial burden on consumers and wasting the finite resources of the planet. The Green Party wants local and national government to take action.

Monday, 27th September 2021, 11:35 am
Updated Monday, 27th September 2021, 11:35 am
Repair Cafe at Heeley City Farm: Gareth Coleman helping Patri Loreto mend her kettle

UK consumers top the league in Europe as buyers of single-use, irreparable goods, according to scientist Professor Mark Miodownik, who presented the programme ‘Dare to Repair’ on BBC Radio 4 in May this year.

The solution is to change our habits and repair and reuse far more often than we do now. On a community level, Sheffield has embraced the idea.

Repair Sheffield, a “repair café”, was launched in 2014. It is part of a movement of repair cafés popping up around the world, with over a hundred in the UK. The Repair Sheffield fixers mend anything from computers to bicycles, radios or even lawnmowers.

Repair Cafe at Heeley City Farm: Repairer Peter checking an old VHS recorder

“We’re an organisation to save people money and repair things that otherwise can’t get repaired,” says Andy Cooper, one of the founders.

“We try to take on anything.

“When we don’t it’s because it’s something so cheaply made and nasty you know it was bought at a pound shop. If it takes over two hours to mend something they bought for two pounds you’ve got to ask if that repair is worthwhile.’

Unfortunately, due to Covid the repair café is on hold for the time being. “The only way that repair cafes would work would be if we could find a suitable outdoor location,” says Andy.

Repair Cafe at Heeley City Farm: Andy Cooper and Dominique Tyler considering the electrical safety of a lamp bought on holiday

“If anyone has one, let us know.”

While Andy’s chief aim is to help save people money and extend the life of goods, other repairers are part of a wider global movement towards a ‘circular economy’ where materials remain in use for longer before being reprocessed into new products.

Movements like repair cafés are slowly changing attitudes, but are unlikely to solve the problem without action from our leaders.

This is why campaigners are calling on the Government to invest in industry and training for ‘resuse, reskill, recyle’ services.

Repair Cafe at Heeley City Farm: Andy Cooper checking an old sewing machine

Times have changed, and now our throw-away culture is creating an unnecessary financial burden on consumers and wasting the finite resources of the planet.

The Green Party wants local and national government to take action.

A report published in August calculates up to 50,000 new jobs could be created in Yorkshire and the Humber by 2035 in repair and recycle services.

The study, by think tank Green Alliance, argues new roles could be created for repairers who fix electronics and machinery, remanufacturers, recycling operatives and biorefinery experts.

Repair Cafe at Heeley City Farm: Gareth Coleman of BitFixIt checking an old laptop

Green Alliance calls on the Government to set a target for the UK to halve its resource use by 2050, set up a £400m starter fund to stimulate the circular economy and retrain workers in declining industries.

Business leaders in Sheffield support the approach, but need to back their words with action.

“We have a proud legacy and exciting future for manufacturing in Sheffield, so we are well positioned to champion the remanufacture and recycling of goods,” says Tom Sutton, head of policy and representation at Sheffield Chamber of Commerce.

“Businesses in Sheffield and South Yorkshire will stand ready to play their part and lead innovations that will not only reduce our environmental impact in the UK but will be able to support the global transition to net-zero.”

Tougher government action is essential to limit the environmental cost of squandering finite resources.

The key is to force manufacturers to stop building obsolescence into products in the first place. In July a step was taken towards tackling this when a new UK law, the Right to Repair Act, came into force enabling us to get appliances fixed rather than replace them.

The new law requires manufacturers to make spare parts and maintenance information available for products with the aim of extending their life.

Currently, the law only covers lighting, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges, but campaign group Restart Project wants this extended to tech products such as mobile phones and computers.

The Repair Sheffield café already teaches people how to repair things for themselves. “People are not encouraged to repair anything,” says Andy Cooper. “Manufacturers say it’s for safety reasons.

"I say it’s because they want you to buy a new one. We’ve had a generation of people who can’t do anything practical. A lot can’t even change plugs.”

The Green Party wants products and materials to be kept in use for as long as possible.

The party calls on the Government to make recycling and repairing easier for all, reducing the need to buy new expensive products on a regular basis.

The Government must go further than toughening ‘right to repair’ legislation. It must follow through on its own rhetoric and divert investment away from projects with a high carbon footprint and towards sustainable industry.

We can all play our part as citizens and consumers, by ending our addiction to shiny new things. If we don’t act soon our legacy to future generations will be a planet that is itself beyond repair.