Ideas for Repair Night

How to get any item repaired | Litterless

On Tuesday, I wrote a little bit about the habit shift that it takes to begin spending a few moments to repair an item, rather than letting the task go undone for years until the item is no longer worth the few minutes you'd spend fixing it.

Today, I'm writing about the mental shift necessary to see an item in disrepair and first think, "Maybe I could do something about that," rather than the more automatic "Guess it's time to replace that."

There are things that do warrant replacement, sure. But there are also things that simply warrant a few moments of attention to get them back in tip-top shape. An item's fix can take many forms. There are:

Things you can fix yourself.

Simpler repairs that make use of the skills you already have, or that allow you to barter tasks with a friend to get done, are some of the easiest repairs to make happen. A few things that come to mind in this category:

Sewing. Small holes, big holes, rips, tears: take to your needle and thread. The result might not be perfect (if perfection's what your after, a tailor or seamstress might be the better choice), but you'll have fixed an item and perhaps marginally improved your own skills along the way. Easy-enough fixes in this category include sewing a strap back on a cotton tote bag, patching a pocket on the interior of a pair of pants, sewing a small rip in a cotton bulk bag.

General sprucing. A super-pilly sweater isn't brokenper se, but nor is it exactly in fine working order. Taking time to try to get the stains out of clothing, removing the pills from a beloved woolen item, snipping stray threads: anything you can do to get an item that's feeling dreary and drab back in good wearing order is, I've found, worthy of the time it takes.

Things you can ask the manufacturer to fix.

Who better to deal with your issue than the company that knows the item intimately? A few categories where I email the company right off the bat, knowing that any attempted fix on my part isn't going to be what the item needs:

How to repair anything | Zero waste item care ideas | Litterless

Electronics. Meddling about with the inner workings of an electronic item isn't safe, so I don't do it. Instead of giving up on electronic pieces, though, I may send the manufacturer an email explaining the problem and asking what they'd recommend for a fix. Sometimes I've been sent a new part - for free - that I simply have to screw on. (That was the case with the small humidifier nebulizer, pictured above). Other times, they've suggested other easy-enough things I can do at home, or offered to fix it themselves if I send the item in. If they're not able to help me repair the item, I'll ask if they can take the item back for safe disposal. Regardless, when dealing with electronics, it's important to follow expert advice (not mine).

Parts and pieces. When the majority of an item is still in good working order, save for one small piece, oftentimes it's worthwhile to ask the manufacturer if they'll replace the part for you. I recently mailed in a small broken buckle from a backpack to Kelty, who replaced it for just the price of shipping. I called Klean Kanteen to ask if they could replace the gasket on my leaky thermos, and they promptly mailed me two new gaskets, free of charge.

When in doubt. If you're not sure about how to fix something, it never hurts to simply ask the folks who made it. An email or phone call rarely takes more than five minutes, and at least you'll have an answer. I've gotten a beloved bracelet soldered back together for $20 - who knows what you'll find out if you simply ask the question?

If a company proves less than amenable to helping you fix your item (or dispose of it properly if it's unfixable), well, then, you'll learn that they might not be someone you'll want to turn to in the future. I've found that the more that I choose to purchase items from companies who fully stand behind them, the longer I'm able to keep those items around.

Things you can take to an expert third party.

There are whole professions devoted to careful fixing of certain items: cobblers, tailors and seamstresses, furniture restorers. When such a person exists, sometimes it's best to leave the doing in their hands.

Things you don't care enough to fix.

No thrift store wants your broken item. My boyfriend bought an alarm clock last night at a secondhand shop, only to open it and find that the battery casing was corroded beyond repair. (He was only out ninety cents, though, so not a big deal). In the case of something that no longer works but that you don't care to fix yourself, perhaps by listing it for free on craigslist or in a local Buy Nothing Group on Facebook - with full acknowledgement that it comes with a little elbow grease needed - you can find the item a new home and a new owner who's willing to take that time.

Other resources.

-Creative reuse stores. Need thread to fix a garment, a container to hold small parts and pieces, a small set of tools? I've come to love my local secondhand craft supply store for this. It sells art, craft, and making supplies donated by community members, and it very often has just the right supplies for my next project. To see if there's a similar resource near you, search "creative reuse store + your city," or "secondhand craft supplies + your city.""The free repair guide for everything, written by everyone." I've never turned to this online guide, which I just recently found while working on this piece. Have you used it? It seems like it has the potential to be so helpful.

-Repair Cafes. Spots where folks can gather to borrow from a shared stash of tools, seek semi-expert help, or simply execute repairs in the company of a friendly, likeminded bunch. See if there's one located near you here

Now, how to actually make time to get these things done? I've started a list where I jot down a repair task anytime I see an item in need of it. That way, I don't have to take the time to figure out the repair right then and there, but neither does it get lost in the swirling eddy of time and mental to-do lists.

Then, I can tackle a task on the list whenever I want to make productive use of a spare moment: emailing a manufacturer or researching a local cobbler in a spare five minutes in front of my computer, setting aside a few pieces of mending to do while watching TV or chatting on the phone with a friend, throwing a few items in a tote to bring with me to repair night at a friend's house, dropping off a pair of shoes at the cobbler on my way to the grocery. When I've got those tasks all corralled in one place, I can feel the satisfaction of finally checking something off.

What have you guys been fixing, or getting fixed, lately? Any other ideas for items or companies with whom this works particularly well? Recent wins to share?

Previously in Home: Takeback programs for reuse and recycling, and how to stop the flow of junk mail.

Repair Night

Repairing things | Litterless

Entropy, man. It'll get ya. Things break, irritatingly, and no amount of hoping will put them back together. But a little work often can.

Trying to buy less, trying to move away from disposable products, trying not to make as much trash: all worthwhile endeavors, and all helped along by making the time to take care of the things that you already own, as well. If zero waste can be summed up as moving beyond "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" to the 5 Rs of "Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot," I'd like to posit a sixth: Repair.

When things break, we have two choices: give up on them, or try to fix them. The former is often a path directly to the landfill. If you don't want to try to fix your humidifier, chances are no one at the thrift store will want to either. The latter is a path to a more circular economy: taking something from unusable to useable means keeping it out of the landfill, and that you don't have to buy a brand new item, with all the additional natural resources that entails. A win, win.

It's one thing to conceptually understand why something is important; it's another thing to act on it. (And therein lies all of the challenge of zero waste). With repair, the hurdle I've run into is this: most repairs fall under the heading of "non-urgent."

Though I know as I should, it can be hard to set aside time to make those tiny tasks happen. More often, broken objects languish around the house. Perhaps, for the very organized, they're all grouped together in a box, awaiting a spare moment to be fixed. For me, broken items are perhaps simply stored alongside their functional brethren. A backpack with a broken buckle resides with all of the other backpacks. The upshot of this is that I tend to forget that the object is broken until I pull it out and need to use it. Every time I open the cabinet and see it, I feel a small twinge of guilt - oh yeah, I need to do that - before promptly forgetting about it as soon as the cabinet shuts. You, too?

Recently, we've been getting purposeful about making our repairs happen. For us, this has looked like setting aside a set time to deal with the broken objects we've identified. Last night, after dinner, I sat down in front of The Great British Baking Show with a needle in hand and sewed a patch on a pocket that had long been hole-y. My boyfriend cleaned his espresso machine to keep it running smoothly, and kindly spent some time unclogging two of my fountain pens (keeping fountain pens in working order is another story in itself. Oof).

It was satisfying to finish projects that have long been lurking around on the margins of my mind and to do list. Rather than repairing items as they break, which entails dropping everything to fix something quickly, I'm thinking I'll continue to corral tasks into repair nights every so often. Though last night's was just us and the TV, it would be fun to get a group of friends together over snacks and candles to chat and have a little repair bee. You could even swap tools or tasks: I could handle the sewing for a less dexterous friend, who could take over another task for me, in turn.

Later this week, I'll be back with another look into what I've been fixing up lately. Any tasks you've been letting languish that you just need a little push to get started on?

Previously in Repair: A few more thoughts.

Photograph of a tea strainer missing the chain that keeps it anchored to the top of a mug. Literally thirty seconds with a pliers, and it's back together again.

Takeback Programs

Baggu zero waste resuable tote bags | Litterless

In San Fransisco a few weeks ago, we were visiting the Mission District and wandered into a Baggu store. Baggu makes those reusable totes that fold up into small squares and are quite light; I use mine nearly daily for errands or work. (You can see mine in action here, here, here, and here, if you're so inclined). I'd been wanting another one, and browsed their beautifully technicolored displays until I found one that I wanted - which, of course, was not technicolor itself, as I am a boring neutrals lover (I went with the solid teal shown near the right of the photograph below).

Baggu bags aren't recycled cotton, organic hemp, or anything extra sustainable in and of themselves. But, a bag in the hand is worth two in the bush, right? Being able to refuse single-use shopping bags depends on actually having a reusable one with you when you need it, and unfortunately bags made from natural fibers tend to be heavier and bulkier and not as conducive to carrying around just-in-case. So, I use both Baggus and cotton bags on different occasions, and it works well for me.

Baggu reusable zero waste totes | Litterless

One thing Baggu gets right is that they accept their worn-out bags for recycling (!!!!). I'm of the opinion that companies should stand behind their products, repairing them until they can be repaired no longer and then offering to recycle them at the very end of their lifecycles. With that in mind, I've compiled a list of the companies who do this, whether it's taking back a container that their product comes in or accepting back the product itself. And because reusing something is preferable to recycling it, next to each I've noted which you can expect to happen to your returned goods.

Clothing & Accessories.

-Baggu: Baggu takes their bags back when they've reached the end of their useful life (until then, you can wash them or mend them yourself to extend their use). You can bring bags to one of their physical stores in the Bay Area or Brooklyn, or mail them to the address listed hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

-Eileen Fisher: EF is working toward becoming a completely circular company, and so they have a few programs set up to make sure your Eileen Fisher garments need never go to the landfill. They'll help you repair your favorites, or accept garments you no longer want back for resale, repurposing, or recycling. You'll also get a $5 store credit for each item you send or bring in. I went to a talk by some of their designers working on zero waste principles back in April, and I left super impressed. Just a week or so ago, my mom gave me an old Eileen Fisher tank top of hers to send back to the company for resale or repurposing... but I liked it, so I kept it. You can shop their secondhand pieces on their website or find the details on returning your worn goods hereReuse or recycle? Both.

-Madewell: I don't have much applause for the sustainability credentials of this brand (though you'd never know it by the number of Madewell clothes I pick up secondhand), but they do accept old jeans from all brands at their stores for recycling; you can find out more about that program, hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

-Patagonia: Patagonia has been incredibly supportive of Zero Waste Chicago, so I'd already be a fan even if their circular economy initiatives weren't so rad, which they are. Through their Worn Wear program, they buy back good-condition Patagonia clothing, repair things that you'd like to keep but that need some TLC, and accept unusable pieces for recycling. So, when buying sportswear, Patagonia is a great choice because you know your items will never need to hit the landfill. You can also follow along with their Worn Wear antics on InstagramReuse or recycle? Both.

-REI: REI accepts their old clothing and gear back for donation; you can send it in using a prepaid shipping label. To find out more or get started, click here. Reuse or recycle? Reuse. And maybe recycling if not - I can't quite tell.


-Lush: This cosmetics company offers many products entirely without packaging; those that do come packaged are typically sold in little pots that can, once emptied, be returned to the Lush store. If you collect five empty pots to return, they'll give you a free face mask! It's a nice incentive, but unfortunately the pots are recycled, not cleaned and reused, so still take caution when purchasing from here. More info on their takeback program can be found hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

-Schmidt's: Schmidt's, makers of natural deodorant that you can find locally at places like Whole Foods, offers a takeback program for their glass jars of deodorant. For every five empty glass jars that you return, they'll give you you a free deodorant - plus, it's free to mail the empties back to them, as well. They sanitize and reuse their empty jars; just note that each new jar comes with an unnecessary, and not recyclable, small plastic scoop. You can learn more about their program, as well as get started on mailing yours in, hereReuse or recycle? Reuse.

-Origins: This cosmetic company accept cosmetics packaging from any company, not just their own, for recycling. You can read more about their program hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

-Kiehl's: Like Lush, Kiehl's is a cosmetics company takes back their empty containers for recycling, and gives you a small reward when you collect enough empties. Because their products are invariably plastic-packaged, this is small comfort for the zero waster, but maybe you can hoard your sister-in-law's stash or convince your BFF to start collecting the empty containers from her favorite lotion. Get the full scoop on their program hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

Terracycle programs.

If you frequently purchase the same product that comes in packaging, check to see if there's a Terracycle program for recycling it. You can find a current list of Terracycle's free recycling programs here; they typically partner with companies directly, so, for example, you can send in the packages from Toms of Maine oral care products, Gu Energy gels, Bausch & Lomb contact lenses, and Lara Bars to be recycled. This isn't an excuse to buy overpackaged products like plastic-wrapped granola bars, of course, but merely a way to deal with them if they arise (which, despite the best of intentions, they often might). Take a look at the full list to see what else appeals to you - for musicians, they take instrument strings! Reuse or recycle? Recycle.


Too often I think zero waste writers and public figures assume that no one will have anything in danger of becoming landfill trash, because everyone is able to buy everything without packaging and never has anything to dispose. But of course we do ourselves a disservice with this type of thinking; fact is, everyone has to buy things in packaging occasionally, or has clothing items that wear out and can't be donated. The more options we have for getting those objects to a place where they'll be correctly recycled or reused, the better.

So, let's all build a mental directory of where we can send things like this. And, when you mail things in, you can of course use smart zero waste-style mailing practices; I've shared my favorite tips for that here. There are, I'm sure, so many programs that I'm missing, and I'd love to learn what they are - if you know of more, kindly share in the comments?

Previously in Home: How to stop junk mail, and notes on keeping reading material circulating.

On Repair


If we're to live in a finite world (we do) and still need / want to use objects in our lives (we do), the way we care for our objects matters. I'm very far from doing this perfectly, but as part of striving for zero waste I also try to be a really good steward of my objects. Almost all of the objects in my home are completely and easily replaceable, but when one of them breaks I try to turn to fixing it rather than turning to purchasing a new one.

Repair can take so many forms, and I get a secret thrill from the ingenuity needed to bring something broken back to life. That can mean fixing something myself, bringing it to a local repair shop, or emailing the company to ask for help or suggestions. I haven't done this option, but I imagine it could also mean turning to the Internet to ask people to crowdsource a fix.

If you know how something could be repaired, but don't have the skills (sewing, darning, woodworking, whatever!) yourself, perhaps you could teach yourself using an online tutorial or offer to swap skills or tasks with a friend (for example, not to get too gendered about this, but I sew back on my boyfriend's buttons and he fixes my clogged kitchen sink, because those just happen to be two of the skills we have and need!). You could also see if there's a Repair Cafe near you, which offers tools and materials you might need, often for free! (You can read more about them in this New York Times article).

And part of this ethic, of course, means trying to purchase things that can be repaired in the first place. This can look like seeking out companies with circular missions and lifetime guarantees, spending a little more on something higher quality, or perhaps owning fewer things so that you have the time and energy to devote to caring for each one.

A few of the repairs I've undertaken of late: wool socks get their life extended a few years by sewing a felt patch over a worn spot. About once a year I take a few pairs of well-loved shoes to a local cobbler for re-soling. When my humidifier broke a few weeks ago, I emailed the company to ask if they could help me troubleshoot it, and they ended up sending over a single part (for free!) that made it work again. The object I'm holding in the photograph above started its life as this bracelet, and when it snapped in half I reached out to the company to ask if they offered a repair program (and they do - not free, but still appreciated). I popped the bracelet halves in a re-used mailer and into the mail, and I'm looking forward to having my bracelet back again.

What have you fixed, and what do you wish you could have? I'd love to hear!