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Foss: Repair Cafe at Schenectady library aims to reduce waste

Foss: Repair Cafe at Schenectady library aims to reduce waste

Foss: Repair Cafe at Schenectady library aims to reduce waste
Steve Tomaszewski examines a broken pencil sharpener.

The lamp has sentimental value. 

That's what Kathy Loomis tells me when I ask her why she brought the desktop lamp she purchased in 2002 to the Repair Cafe in downtown Schenectady. The lamp is still functional, but the plastic shade is broken, marred by an ugly, jagged hole. 

Dave West, the volunteer tasked with fixing the shade, examines the lamp carefully. Then he describes his solution: He'll cover the hole with white construction paper reinforced with super glue. 

"When you see an item that isn't working at home, it makes you cringe, because you love it," Loomis said. 

Thanks to West, Loomis won't be cringing any more. 

Her lamp was one of 74 items repaired at Saturday's Repair Cafe, held at the main branch of the Schenectady County Public Library. 

The event pairs volunteers skilled in tinkering and fixing things with people with household objects in need of repair. 

There is no cost -- all services are provided free of charge -- but there is an educational component: The volunteers explain what they're doing and how to do, in the hopes of passing some of their knowledge along. 

I wrote about West's plan to launch a Repair Cafe in Schenectady in January 2018. 

Since then, the event has really taken off: What I observed was a bustling social gathering that generates goodwill and good spirits by salvaging objects otherwise destined for the landfill. 

The goal -- and it's a good goal -- is to promote repair as an alternative to tossing things in the garbage, to reduce waste and over-consumption of disposable products. 

At a time when it's never been easier to discard a broken item and replace it with something new, the Repair Cafe aims to bring about a radical, and much needed, shift in thinking. 

"People should value their belongings and understand them, but in this throwaway society we live in, that's not often enough the case," explained West, of Niskayuna. 

At the Repair Cafe, "People are learning and getting things repaired," said West, who worked for Shenedehowa Central Schools for 27 years, serving first as maintenance supervisor and then as energy management supervisor. "They're getting the knowledge and comfort of knowing they care repair things themselves." 

The Repair Cafe, in the library's McChesney Room, is well organized. 

People fill out a form when they arrive, indicating what they need fixed. 

On the day I visit, a group of volunteers site at a line of tables marked "general."

Among other things, these volunteers diagnose and try to fix broken lamps, toasters, fans and clocks. At another cluster of tables, volunteers with sewing machines work on clothing, bags and other items made of fabric. There's also a woodworker, and someone good at fixing jewelry. 

I watched one volunteer, Steve Tomaszweski of Ballston Lake, assess a busted electric pencil sharpener. The item was brought in by Schenectady resident Felicia Spivey and her sons, who are 14 and 12. 

"It's one of our favorites," Spivey told me. "I thought, 'Instead of going out and buying a new one, why don't we see if we can fix it?'" 

The pencil sharpener gets a lot of use -- Spivey homeschools her sons. "I've held onto it," she said. "It's been sitting on the bookshelf, and I said, 'I've got to do something with it - either toss it, or get it fixed.'" 

After examining the pencil sharpener, Tomaszweski told Spivey that the switch was broken and that fixing it will be labor intensive - something he could do at home, in his workshop, but not with the more limited supplies on hand at the Repair Cafe. 

His verdict: "It can be saved, but it's a job." 

The pencil sharpener will go to the landfill, after all. 

Spivey wasn't especially disappointed, though. She said she's glad she made an effort to see whether the device could be fixed, and that she feels better about getting rid of it now that she knows what fixing it would entail. 

Of the 87 items brought to the Repair Cafe on Saturday, 74 were fixed -- a pretty good rate of success, if you ask me. 

There are Repair Cafes all over the world, and the concept has spread to other Capital Region municipalities. There are now Repair Cafes in Saratoga Springs, North Greenbush and Schuylerville, and a cafe is planned for Clifton Park. 

Which is good news.

Being at the Repair Cafe was inspiring and thought-provoking. 

It got me thinking about the steps I can take to cut down on household trash and take better care of the things I own.

And it made me more concerned about the sheer amount of garbage generated by a society that makes replacing broken stuff easier than fixing it. If we want to live in a cleaner, less polluted world, than reducing waste is a must. 

The next Schenectady Repair Cafe is scheduled for Sept. 14. 

If you have a broken item that's been cluttering up your shelves, consider bringing it in. Chances are, you won't be disappointed. 

And that you'll learn something, too. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.  

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