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The Sustainable Repair Method

One auspicious evening a little over one year ago, Sandra Goldmark and her husband, Michael Banta, were faced with the dilemma of a broken toaster. They loved the way this particular toaster worked, and were disappointed to learn that the manufacturer could not fix it. Replacing the toaster not only seemed unnecessary, but also wasteful. Why replace when you can repair?

Sandra and Michael quickly began to contemplate a possible solution to the common conundrum of unsustainable repair solutions. They had always repaired many of their own broken items; in fact, many friends relied on them when their favorite appliance stopped working. According to Sandra, time, space, skills, tools and motivation are the five crucial elements to a successful repair. However, hectic schedules and limited access to this specific skill set restrict most; they are left with no other option than to replace their broken items with new ones, thus disposing of a perfectly fixable piece into a rapidly-growing landfill. Goldmark, an assistant professor in the theatre department at Barnard and Banta, a production manager at Barnard, have lived in Inwood since 2004.

The couple’s initial approach to their repair experiment first targeted larger retail stores, hoping to open a repair shop within these stores. “Big box stores can affect the supply chain, so retail must become involved at some point,” Goldmark explained. But when these stores were not responsive, Sandra realized “we had to do it ourselves first.” She applied for an internal grant from Barnard, in addition to raising over $9,000 through an Indiegogo campaign. The final “Pop-Up” project became a four-week experiment in sustainability, from which Sandra and Michael could learn more about what inspires people to pursue repair versus discarding. For many, the opportunity to drop off their broken item at an actual shop gave them the motivation to give their damaged pieces another chance (not unlike Brooklyn’s Fixer’s Collective).

The Pop-Up Repair shop was run six days a week this past June by a rotating cast of technicians, many of whom have a theatrical or performing arts background. Sandra and Michael met their entire crew through this project. We watched Adam, a studio recording equipment expert, breeze through a number of complex electronics in only an hour: a pop-up toaster, a Vornado fan, an old Cuisinart coffee maker. The strangest object he’s seen during this repair period? A Derma Ray machine. Customers are given an initial estimate when they drop off their repair, according to the cost of parts and time of labor required to fix it. Most common repairs include lamps, chairs, jewelry, electronics and appliances, however no two items are repaired exactly the same way. “It’s like a constant puzzle to solve,” explained Adam.

The Repair shop also hosted a small series of workshops, including book repair, musical instruments and even LCD screen repair. Sandra’s vision for sustainability, in the short term, is to help fix broken items. But she would like to see a greater change in the corporate and consumer psyche: “I want to change our culture’s relationship with material goods.” According to Sandra, manufacturers (and sometimes customers, too) are responsible for the entire lifecycle of a product, including the cost of disposal, and the cost of pollution caused by that disposal. If consumers choose to repair rather than replace, they will save money, preserve the product they enjoy using, and ultimately support sustainability.

Pop-Up Repair has proven to be something larger than an experiment between service, community and theater. Goldmark remarked. “I want [consumers] to value what they already own. I want people to buy less material stuff and create a sustainable world.” Reflecting on their month of repairs using the Pop-Up model, Sandra noted that the itinerant repair shop model was the right one for this endeavor. Goldmark and Banta kept detailed records of every repair, and surveyed each customer to determine why they were bringing in their items; most customers had only sought an immediate fix for their household item, but were thrilled to learn that their actions contributed to a greater sustainable future as well. Goldmark and Banta’s four week haven for repairs of all kinds was more than just a solution to a broken toaster. At a rate of nearly 100 repairs per week, the team repaired over one ton of household items. Pop-Up Repair will now take this information and begin research to determine their next move.

Goldmark and Banta have discussed the possibility of taking their repair shop around different neighborhoods in the city, and even around the entire State, perhaps via a moving van. At Inwood’s Darling Coffee next door, Sandra reminded me that I could ask for a reusable glass (instead of a plastic cup) to sip my iced coffee out of while NYSOM spoke with her about Pop-Up Repair’s larger goals for sustainability. It is clear that sustainable efforts are not so difficult after all; one only has to think twice before using a plastic cup, or throwing away an appliance that has the potential to be fixed. Ultimately, Sandra and Michael’s customers make an effort to repair their broken items because they enjoy the way it functions as is. Regardless, every customer who repairs an item, as opposed to disposing of it, inevitably contributes to a more sustainable community.

At NYSOM, we are thankful for those talented few who make some of our beloved possessions last a little longer. Favorite leather boots have survived long winters upstate, thanks to skilled cobblers. Worn handbags, years beyond their lifespan, have surpassed their life expectancy with a bit of polish. Jeans, hopelessly ripped after too many late-night cheesy fry orders in have been salvaged. With resources like Pop-Up Repair, it’s possible to shift one’s paradigm to a repair first, replace later model. Hold onto that broken, damaged, or not-quite-right piece of yours. We cannot wait to see where Sandra and Michael might pop up next. To learn more, visit: http://www.popuprepair.com/.

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