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Repair cafes: Meet the woman fixing the way we think about landfill

Sewing up the hole in your favourite jeans may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about your local cafe, but repair cafes offer an opportunity to do just that. The Goodlife Centre is a space where you can enjoy a cuppa while learning the lost art of fixing. We spoke to Alison Winfield-Chislett, a self-proclaimed “repair activist” and founder of the London based workshops, to find out why she’s teaching everything from darning socks to furniture making.

Think back to when you first moved out, remember that one mug which got used for absolutely everything - soup, tea, cereal? Fast forward a few years and you’ve probably accumulated a lot more ‘stuff’, but how much thought goes into what happens when those things reach the end of their working life? The majority of it probably heads to landfill - a concept that Alison regards as peculiar: “I’m always very fascinated by this phrase ‘throwing away’. There is no ‘away’. If you take your broken kettle and walk it to the top of the landfill and plonk it on the top, that’s where away is.”

Alison has a point. It won’t be long until we run out of landfill sites. It’s already estimated that by 2020 there will only be 50 landfill sites left in the entire country. And the alternatives to landfill sites aren’t great either, one option currently being discussed is to burn what can’t be recycled - an equally unsustainable solution. So what’s the answer? Recycling can only offer an answer to part of the problem, as not all household belongings can be repurposed or made into something new.

Extending the lives of our belongings can make a huge difference. Alison highlights why it’s important to think before you buy: “Consider what the rest of the object’s life is going to be. If you can hold something back from landfill then that’s best, because until we find a way to recycle more of our things, then our discarded possessions will just sit on the landfill heap.”

But not all of us are equipped with a full set of ‘fixing’ abilities. That’s where repair cafes and workshops come in. Alison set up The Goodlife Centre seven years ago after reading an article on repair cafes in the Netherlands. She realised she had the expertise and tools to set up her own, so asked tutors to volunteer and began running different workshops on everything from woodwork to upholstery.

The centre now runs over 60 different workshops, which are open to anyone who is interested in learning how to revamp things. Alison says: “All sorts of people come along. Some parents bring their children, which I think is marvellous because it’s encouraging a new generation to look at a broken thing differently. There are no guidelines to what people can bring along, if it’s broken we’ll have a go.”

Workshops vary from free community repair events that last an afternoon, up to year long courses, which teach skills in far more depth. The growing popularity of these classes seems to suggest a resurgence in the make do and mend mentality - with over 1580 registered repair cafes and workshops existing globally.  And as well as a rise in repair cafes, we’re also seeing a rise in repurposing tutorials and guides on how to make clothes last longer, showing a move away from disposable possessions.

But Alison is keen to show that there’s more to repairing things than simply saving money: “I like to see someone’s face when something is returned to them that they thought was broken. I just love to see the pride people have in repairing something themselves.”

Studies have proven that indulging in hands-on or creative activities can be extremely beneficial for the mind, while fixing something and learning how it is made helps us to respect our material possessions more. Alison says: “We can’t be proud of a throwaway society anymore, we have to learn to take care of things. It gives us a greater connection to our belongings.”

If you’re feeling motivated to mend, you needn’t do it alone. Why not find your local repair cafe or workshop and give your belongings a new lease of life?

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