Webinar highlights: Why waste and resource managers should be thinking about repair

Blog by Emily Nurse, Sustainability and Social Value Intern at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

Today, repair is increasingly working its way towards centre stage, gaining traction and acknowledgment by society in a multifaceted bid to save money, protect the environment, and to reduce consumption. Chairing this week’s webinar, Dr Adam Read, Chief External Affairs and Sustainability Officer at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK strengthened this notion when opening up the conversation, through emphasising the importance of moving products up through the waste hierarchy and away from disposal and even recycling. Now, our moral conscience can no longer be wiped clean by simply deciding to recycle an item if more can be done to keep it in use for longer. Adam introduced the expert panel who would be giving their insights on and experiences with repair, including Phoebe Brown, Director of Repair Café Wales, Annette Dentith from Devon County Council, and Sarah Ottaway from SUEZ. This webinar follows on from a session SUEZ hosted back in December 2022 on reuse and repair, and is associated with a second in a series of three guides (and webinars) focusing on reuse activities. The second guide, released earlier this week, focuses explicitly on repair, building on the experience that SUEZ and its partners and customers have has had in this space, and the subsequent success that’s followed.

Repair Café Wales

Operating as a not-for-profit, community interest company, Repair Café Wales works to support communities to set up and run pop-up events, where members of the public are able to get household items repaired at no cost, by a volunteer, to avoid the item ending up in the bin. You name it – they’ve probably fixed it! Currently, they support 100 communities across the UK, through providing equipment, funding, advice, and guidance, to make it as easy as possible for local communities to be able to run these events.

Repair Café Wales are interested in the environmental impact and benefit of repair, by keeping items out of landfill whilst also stopping the need for new items to be produced in the first place. Using the Farnham repair café carbon calculator, they are able to assess their environmental impact. For example, 10 average repairs will save the carbon emissions of driving 1,366 miles, showering 206 times, or flying 2006 miles – a pretty large environmental saving!

These pop-up cafes also bring benefits to mental health, where people feel a greater sense of connection to the local community and are less isolated or alone. Additionally, the repair pop-ups do not operate with a drop off and collect model, meaning that those getting an item repaired can get hands on with it and learn new skills, perhaps being able to repair an item independently in the future.

The pop-ups are prominently at a grassroots and community level, and are always volunteer based. However, there is a lot going on behind the scenes in terms of data capture and analysis – the make, model and brand of the item are captured, alongside the ‘end of life reason’ which all feeds into a large database. This provides insight into why items cannot be fixed – whilst 70% of items brought into the pop-ups are able to be given a new lease of life, they can’t always be saved – often for reasons such as spare parts being too expensive, unavailable to purchase, or because there is no way to open the product without damaging it further. All of this data contributes towards the Right to Repair Movement, lobbying governments and manufacturers to make items easier to repair in the first place.

Whilst Wales has the biggest network of repair cafés in the UK, and growth within the network continues to be on the rise, engagement with repair is still not where it needs to be. This is because it still isn’t the norm – buying a replacement for a ‘broken’ item is, rather than deciding to fix it. However, with that said, the recent cost of living crisis has helped to drive the repair movement, displaying a demand majorly from an economic needs perspective, rather than from an environmental needs perspective, as people look for ways to save cash.

Reuse and Repair in Devon

Devon has had success with repair cafés, boasting 28 throughout the county. Their waste and resource management strategy includes a major focus on reducing, reusing, and recycling – after all, what is repair without reuse? The strategy helped to highlight the need for a Reuse Officer in Devon, having now been an active role for the last eight years. As part of this role, the Reuse Officer offers the loaning of swishing kits which include hanging rails for clothes, hangers, mirrors – used for a ‘swishing event’, aka a car boot / jumble sale, PAT testing training, workshops, and small grants for reuse cafés. Alongside this, community action groups in Devon help to facilitate repair cafés through providing risk assessment templates, or support with insurance, for example.

At the Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) across the county – which are primarily run by SUEZ – Devon County Council works in partnership with SUEZ to reuse and repair 1000 tonnes of ‘waste’ per year. This impressive figure is achieved through a variety of initiatives, but mainly through trained staff manually diverting items which enter the skips at the HWRC. The items are salvaged and are instead sold through one of SUEZ’ on-site Reuse shops.

‘The Big Fix’ is an annual event that originated in Exeter in 2019, initially starting with 40 menders working to repair 268 items within a day. It has now been launched UK wide, and in 2023, Devon County Council will be asking all repair cafés across the country to join in on every Saturday for the month of May, to try and repair as many items as possible. Last year, 50 repair cafés took part, with 580 volunteers. As a result, 30 tonnes of CO2 equivalent were saved.

Throughout Devon, items including TVs, hoovers and lamps are accepted for reuse across 12 sites. These sites have donation stations to ensure that items are intercepted before they go into the skip, and can be PAT tested, whilst minor repairs that need to be made, can be done on site before products go to their second home. However, space is often limited on sites, pointing to the potential need for off-site hubs, where there may be more space for repair activities to take place. There is a real cost in recruiting experts or upskilling personnel or sending items off-site to be repaired. The availability of parts and the cost of repair also poses as an issue, however, manufacturers are now obliged to make items easier to fix and are expected to make things better in the near future.

Unfortunately, it is still cheaper, and easier to buy new than to repair for most items. But things are changing. For example Curry’s now offer repurposed items for sale at a cheaper price – driven by customer demand – with 80% of items selling out in the first week, indicating that things are going in the right direction. However, we’ve still got a long way to go if we want repair to become normalised to the extent that it drives mass behaviour change.

SUEZ – reuse and repair are central to a circular economy

It is clear that more of the items handled by the waste and resource industry need to work their way towards the centre of the circular economy. No matter what environmental, social, or economic crises we are facing, reuse and repair have huge potential and a key role to play as a solution to many of the current problems we are grappling with today.

The opportunity attached to reuse and repair is huge. Based on SUEZ data collected over the last 10 years, if everyone had just one item repaired on a yearly basis, it would create jobs for 40,000 skilled professionals. In relation to the economic opportunity, if every person paid an average of £20 on that yearly repair, there would be a potential for £1.3 billion of revenue. There is a huge cost saving to an individual by looking at pre-loved items, whether these are essential or non-essential items. This also serves as evidence that this sector could pay its own way and be self-sustaining, without funding from external sources.

As the repair system grows, develops, and matures over time, mass scale behaviour change will follow. Currently, it’s too hard to repair things easily – because it isn’t the norm, it isn’t accessible, and it isn’t the most affordable option.

SUEZ have been involved in the repair space for around six years now. It began small-scale in 2017 in Surrey, with PAT testing of small electrical items like hoovers on-site to check if they were fit for purpose. Today, this has evolved, with SUEZ now working in partnership with HMP Ford in Surrey, where prisoners are trained and taught to repair bikes, to then be sold through the Reuse shops. Working with partners allows the bigger scale necessary for widespread change to take place. SUEZ’ Renew Hub in Manchester is a fantastic example of how the scale of repair has been accelerated through partnerships with organisations, where there is a thriving repair network upcycling items from bikes to electricals.

Helping to accelerate the transition is discussed in SUEZ’ latest reuse guide. Complementary to the first guide focusing on reuse at HWRCs, this guide will help you to evolve what you already do with repair, or to provide a starting point if you’d like to get involved.

A poll question was then posed to the audience and panel, asking: What could be the biggest motivator to encourage more people to choose repair?

Phoebe felt inclined towards choosing the cost-of-living crisis as a key motivator, commenting on the high social media engagement they have received when making posts around saving money. However, she also added that it’s not that simple, and is actually due a combination of motivators, as people are driven by different forces, and it isn’t realistic to assume that everyone is influenced by the same things.

Annette commented on the environmental crisis, highlighting that people may not actually realise just how much of a major positive impact that repair has, and even more so than recycling! It may seem obvious, but until it is pointed out to you, people don’t always have that clarity.

Sarah agreed with Phoebe that it is combination of motivators, however stated that accessibility does have a more long-term, sustainable message attached to it. She added that local authorities know their communities best – and that they need to put out the messages that resonate most with their people!

Another poll question asked how long it would take for repair to become the norm (perhaps in comparison to recycling). All panelists were in strong agreement that it may in fact be quicker, carrying an optimistic outlook. Annette drew attention to the fact that people did used to get items repaired regularly, and that people do know that the option is there. Similarly, Sarah argued that there is a strong case for repair to take off quickly, referring to the work that SUEZ has carried out, and the success of the repair cafés.


The thought-provoking webinar inspired a number of questions from the audience:

Where will we find people to work in repair, and what will they be trained in?

Sarah Ottaway: There are a diverse range of roles out there in relation to repair – there aren’t simply jobs in the repairing of items themselves, but also in IT, supply chain sector, and management roles, to name a few. The Renew Hub in Manchester is working with a local college to carry out a course based around repair, to provide some of the skills that would be necessary, and to provide an insight into what a job in repair may look like.

Given we might be attracting people that are currently volunteering, is this a threat to the repair café model?

Phoebe Brown: No, not at all – I think it’s an opportunity. There is currently a lack of young people engaging in the repair space, so providing a route to employment and an economic driver to working in repair is definitely a positive thing. Similarly to Sarah, we are currently looking into working in partnership with colleges in Wales.

Should councils pay for the repairs – whether at a café or at the renew hub – as this will ultimately avoid landfill costs, treatment costs etc?

Annette Dentith: The support we provide to cafés is good – we help through providing small grants, risk assessments, and training. In a way, we do cover a large proportion of the cost through this. However, the point behind repair cafés is that they consist of grassroot action, and they like to set themselves up. On the HWRCs, we do have a profit-sharing mechanism with SUEZ – this could be a way of increasing repair further, as everybody wins, including the staff on site, who are encouraged to take items out of the waste stream and benefit as a direct result of doing so.

How do we make reuse the norm? Currently, what is the biggest barrier?

Sarah Ottaway: Ultimately, repair needs to be part of a strategy. You don’t often see it as a common activity alongside a local waste authority strategy, whilst it may be recognised. This means the scale of action in repair just can’t be taken. Once an item reaches a skip in a HWRC, it is at the last point of return – there is no chance to get it back after that! We are still waiting for the waste prevention programme from DEFRA, which would help to drive political momentum and change. Without the systems in place, behaviour change will not happen.

If you’d like the full run down of the questions posed by Dr Adam Read and the detailed answers from the panel, head over to watch the recording of the webinar here.

This webinar was jam-packed, demonstrating that the repair space is doing nothing but growing through data, content, and examples. We are beginning to see a change, but it is apparent that the size and scale of repair is not yet where it could be. That old sock in your drawer with a hole in it? Don’t bin it! Whip out your old sewing kit and give repair a go.