One of this year’s Bank Australia customer grant recipients, The Bower Reuse & Repair Centre Co-Op has been teaching Sydneysiders the art and craft of reusing, repairing and recycling for two decades.
As a society, we’re pretty good at buying stuff. We’re getting better at it, too.
In fact, consumer spending in Australia has increased pretty much every year since records began in 1959. (Although a lot of this will be due to simply having more money to spend in the first place).
Much of the time, we exchange our money for things. And over time – thanks to advertising, the increasingly rapid pace of technological advancements, and more advertising – those things invariably either get replaced, break, become outdated, or get rendered obsolete by newer versions.
And when we’re finished with all of these things, they have to go somewhere. As a result, the average Australian sends an enormous two tonnes of waste to the landfill per year.
The good news is that we’re recycling more – Australians recycle 58% of waste – but there’s still work to be done. And while the onus is on the individual to alter their habits, some innovative souls are shouldering more than their fair share of the responsibility.
The Bower Reuse & Repair Centre Co-Op in Sydney is doing everything it can to increase the rates of recycling, reusing and repairing both in its local area and beyond. Its ultimate, utopian vision? A circular economy, in which ‘old’ things get re-used, repurposed and recycled, and where shopping second hand is the norm.
“There’s still a bit of an imbalance,” says Belgium-born Guido Verbist, The Bower’s co-operative manager. “We get offered a lot more second-hand goods than we can actually give away or sell, because more people are giving it away than are buying it. But we’re trying to promote the importance of buying second hand too!”
The Bower celebrated its 20th birthday this year with an annual fundraiser, during which some of the Co-Op’s most unique donated items were auctioned off. They also auctioned two tiny houses, which were made completely from recycled furniture and materials. The money raised from the fundraiser will help support The Bower’s two primary activities.
The Bower, first and foremost, sells second hand furniture, appliances, household items, bikes and other such goods. In addition to that, they also teach repair and refurbishment skills via a range of carpentry, electronic and home DIY workshops. At their regular Repair Cafés you can take broken items and learn how to fix them for free. They also make bespoke furniture, to customer specifications, from 100% recycled materials. Essentially, it’s a one-stop shop for all of your repairing, reusing and recycling needs.
One way The Bower puts its surplus of goods to use is through its House to Home program, which enables asylum seekers, refugees and survivors of family violence to visit The Bower and stock up on things they need for their homes. “It might cost us $1000 to help get a family of four everything they need to set themselves up in their new permanent homes,” says Guido. “That program is now supported by a grant from Bank Australia, so that money will be used to help run that and facilitate that service. The interest and the uptake in the program has been very positive – we welcome two to three families or women with children a week, and the most popular goods for them are fridges, couches, cupboards and beds. We can even help deliver it with a bit of planning, too.”
With two main centres – one in Marrickville and one in Parramatta – a wood workshop in Redfern and an electronics hub in Green Square, Guido estimates that The Bower now serves roughly 2.5 million people. And he thinks that number is growing. “Once people begin to understand the negative impact of throwing away, they get more interested in repairing, and that’s when we can start to help them,” he says. “Everything we do is driven by our objective to pass on the skills and the knowledge to the community.”
Unlike other second hand stores that only accept used goods in the very best condition, The Bower is dedicated to repairing or refurbishing goods until they’re fit for sale. The Co-Op has full-time staff working to ensure they repair and refurbish as much as they physically can.
But while Australians can vow to create less waste, buy second hand instead of new, and take the time to repair their broken products, Guido concedes that there’s a lot that still needs to be done at a government level.
In some European countries, he says, manufacturers now have to provide spare parts for a product for at least two years after release. Sweden has introduced tax breaks for repairing items. “Initiatives like that give people an incentive to repair rather than throw away,” he says. “There are so many benefits to that kind of thing – but those measures haven’t been considered here yet.”
Of course, in the unending quest for profit, many industries – particularly the tech industry – design products that can’t easily be repaired or will be rendered obsolete within just a year or two. In economic speak, this is known as planned obsolescence, and it’s something we’ve unwittingly accepted as a part of everyday life. For example, the technology exists for a single lightbulb to last for decades. But a lightbulb that lasts for 10 years wouldn’t be very profitable, would it?
“It’s difficult to solve anything for as long as we tolerate that in-built obsolescence,” offers Guido. “And It might be more expensive to invest in good quality products upfront, but if it’s something that can be repaired over and over again, then it works out in the long run.”
You can find Guido and his team at their Marrickville or Parramatta locations, and visit The Bower website for more information and reusing, repairing and recycling. The Bower’s House to Home initiative is supported a Bank Australia customer grant.