Silicon Valley entrepreneur starts 'Repair Café'
From headsets to vacuums, volunteers will fix household items to reduce landfill waste
A new Palo Alto nonprofit organization that aims to help non-tinkerers solve the minor mysteries of repairing broken small appliances and household items will open its doors on Sunday, Oct. 14.
Dubbed the Repair Café, volunteers armed with hand tools will help people learn to repair frayed electrical cords, non-popping toasters and even luggage at the Palo Alto Museum of American Heritage.
Peter Skinner, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and longtime chief financial officer, founded the first such organization in the U.S. after reading about repair cafes in the Netherlands, he said. The small European nation has 30 community-based fix-it cafes.
Instead of tossing the broken devices into the Dumpster, people will save money and do something good for the environment while learning a few handyperson skills, he said.
Among the items volunteers can help fix are small household appliances, furniture, luggage, some electronics, including personal computers, toys, bicycles and clothing. Palo Alto ACE Hardware will have staff on hand, and Green Citizen recycling company and the city's Zero Waste program will have booths. There will be information about where to recycle things that can't be repaired, he said.
"The idea appealed to me because of my own dissatisfaction with the prevalence of our hyper-consumer culture where we buy and we toss," he said. Every time he does that personally, he finds it discomforting, he said.
After reading a New York Times article in May, Skinner contacted the Netherlands group to see about using their name and model. They were excited about the idea, he said.
With his background as a chief financial officer for Silicon Valley companies, including formerly at Accept Software Corporation, Skinner knew he could fill the role of group organizer. He set about putting together the volunteers and their skills and finding a location for the inaugural event with the help and advice of two friends, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Bob Wenzlau and John Eaton.
Skinner admits he is not a fix-it expert.
"I have moderate fix-it skills, not refined fix-it skills. I'm the perfect candidate" for the Repair Café, he said. He plans to bring an electric kettle with a lid that won't close and a corroded multimeter electronic-testing device that stopped functioning.
Skinner said he hopes to assuage people's fear of those things that seem imposing — and build in people a sense of the value of repairing.
"We are all so acclimated to throwing things away," he said.
That trend has nearly doubled in almost 50 years, he said. In 1960, each person in the U.S. generated 2.68 pounds of waste per day. By 2008, the average was 4.5 pounds per day. About 54 percent ended up in the landfill, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Out of 2.25 million pounds of electronics that were retired in 2007, 82 percent were discarded in landfills nationwide, according to the EPA.
The deleterious effects are more than mountains of trash. Landfills are usually located near bodies of water, and plastics can leach chemicals and gases even before they disintegrate, the EPA states. A Zero Waste America study found that 83 percent of landfills surveyed in 2008 had leaks in their protective linings.
Incinerators that process landfill materials are also a major source of 210 different dioxin compounds, heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, nitrous oxide, hydrogen chloride, sulfuric acid, fluorides and particulate matter small enough to lodge in lungs, according to the EPA. Waste incinerators create more carbon dioxide than coal, oil or natural-gas power plants, the EPA notes.
Skinner said he is interested in grassroots, community-based solutions to problems.
"We have so little appetite for sweeping policy changes," he said.
Eaton, a mechanical engineer by training, said he will volunteer at the event.
"I've always been a tinkerer and repairer since forever — ever since I was a kid and started pulling lawnmower engines apart," he said.
That first introduction to things mechanical probably led to his career choice, he added. It has also made him popular with his friends and neighbors.
"My friends will call and say, 'John, come over for a glass of wine — and by the way, the dishwasher isn't draining right,'" he said.
Eaton said headphones and earbuds are some of the most challenging items to fix. Tiny coaxial wires, which have a braid of fine wires within them, have to be connected with a soldering iron while looking through a microscope.
His stereoscope — a microscope with two eyepieces — is one of his most-used tools.
"It's not something people have a lot. But it's good when things are broken and you can't determine why they are broken," he said.
In his arsenal are items one wouldn't have found in Dad's toolbox. New tools are used for new technologies: miniature wire strippers, good tweezers and pry tools made out of plastic so they won't gouge consoles, he said.
Skinner said Repair Café will start out quarterly, and hopefully it will expand as community interest grows. So far, he's spreading the news through his neighborhood email list and has posted notices at ACE Hardware and the Museum of American Heritage.
"The response I got has been amazing," he said.
People have supplied a list of items needing repair, from DustBusters to luggage. One woman wanted to bring a moped.
That brought up a point he wanted to emphasize. The Repair Café is for small appliances and items only — things that won't take too much time to fix.
"No cars, no washing machines, no dishwashers. If it takes a truck to move it, it's probably not a good thing to bring," he said.
Repair Café will take place Sunday, Oct. 14, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Palo Alto Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at email@example.com.