PROJECT OF THE MONTH: Stanford Repair Cafe

We are excited to revamp our Project of the Month series where we highlight projects from our student chapters to show off the amazing initiatives taking place at their respective campuses. This month we are highlighting Stanford University's Repair Cafe! "Repair Café is an international project [striving] to reduce waste by bringing people together to fix broken items for free. [The] goal is to bring together people with technical skills, “fixers,” and people who need repairs [and offers] apprenticeships to those interested in learning skills of their own and providing a community for fixers who return time after time to volunteer their skills." Since conception in 2016, Repair Cafe has helped "divert around 60 items each school quarter from being thrown away, making this event both a service and a learning experience."

Stanford Repair Cafe


What Is It?

Repair Café is an international project to reduce waste by bringing people together to fix broken items for free. The current social norm when items are damaged is to throw them away and purchase new ones. This puts people under financial strain and contributes to excessive waste, particularly when items are only slightly damaged—for example, when a fuse blows in a stereo. Repair Café’s goal is to bring together people with technical skills, “fixers,” and people who need repairs. It is both a social and working space, offering apprenticeships to those interested in learning skills of their own and providing a community for fixers who return time after time to volunteer their skills.


For the past several years, the Stanford branch of Engineers for a Sustainable World has collaborated with the non-profit organization Repair Café to offer free repair events to students and members of the Stanford community. The founder of Repair Cafe, Martine Postma, organized the very first Repair Cafe in Amsterdam on October 8th, 2009 in order to teach people about the value of repairing and kindle their enthusiasm for a sustainable society. Since then, the organization has grown vastly and now includes over 1,500 Repair Cafes worldwide, including our own here at Stanford.


The Stanford branch of ESW was founded in 2003 and since then has organized numerous activities, including workshops, international internships, local projects and conferences. In addition to international projects, such as robotic exploration in Peru and remote monitoring systems design in Indonesia, there are also several local projects, including the Repair Cafe, which began in April of 2016. Through the event, engineering students can gain invaluable hands-on experiences that aren’t available in class while also helping divert around 60 items each school quarter from being thrown away, making this event both a service and a learning experience. 


The ESW chapter at Stanford found that there was a particular need for Repair Café on our campus. College students often lack the funds to take care of essential possessions and can struggle greatly when such possessions are damaged. There is a Repair Café close by in Palo Alto, but for students without sufficient transportation, even this distance can be too much—especially for those with damaged bikes. Repair Café also falls neatly within ESW Stanford’s mission to address both poverty and sustainability, with the additional benefit of providing potential educational opportunities for engineering students on campus.


At Stanford, the main form of transportation is bikes, which leads to a lot of bike repairs!


ESW Stanford hosts Repair Café once a quarter, or about once every ten weeks, for one four- or five-hour day. We recruit fixers from the community - some are students, but the majority are other community members. Fixers are separated into three main categories: bikes, appliances, and sewing. This is a significant difference from other Repair Café events. Repair Café Palo Alto, for instance, sees many lamps, vacuums, and related items, whereas Repair Café at Stanford has a much bigger need for bike repairs.


In fact, the need for bike repairs is so significant that we host workshops to train ESW members to fix bikes to handle the demand. Collaborating with the Stanford Bike Project, ESW teaches the basics of bike maintenance, including brake repair and tube replacement, to its members and any other interested students. These students usually go on to be bike fixers at the event itself. ESW also connects interested students with other fixers in the apprenticeship program. Fixers get to have an extra pair of hands, and students get to learn and practice hands-on repair skills that often translate to class or work projects.


The event itself is long and busy, but highly rewarding. ESW members set up the space with designated areas for each fixer, providing tools, materials, and food as needed. Many fixers bring their own set of tools. Stanford students and other community members come in throughout the day with items in various states of disrepair. They are met at the door by ESW members who assess the item and its damage and assign it to a fixer in the appropriate category. The fixer (along with their apprentice, if they have one) works to fix the item. If the fix is not possible, we recycle the item as best we can, sometimes stripping it for parts if its owner agrees. We also have ESW members on hand during the day to make runs to hardware stores as materials run low. Repair Café is so popular that we sometimes have fixers volunteering to stay long past the end of the event to finish. The event hinges largely upon the enthusiastic support of our volunteer fixers, who consistently show dedication far beyond any of our expectations.


Students can learn to fix all sorts of appliances from iPhones to fridges


Our local seamstress teaches new apprentices every quarter basic sewing skills


Timeline and Recruiting

As Repair Café organizers, receiving constructive criticism is very important. Therefore, at the end of every repair event, we ask that all of our apprentices and fixers submit feedback by email, explaining what aspects of the event they liked, and what aspects they believe need improvement. Usually, our fixers and apprentices suggest that we stock more bike supplies, especially bike cords and, often enough, wheel spokes. At a meeting following the event, we carefully review this feedback and discuss what went well at the previous Repair Café in addition to what might need to change in the future.


In preparation for the next Repair Café, organizers collect turn-in sheets from fixers and apprentices from the previous quarter’s café. These turn-in sheets contain valuable information, including statistics revealing the most common appliances fixed as well as the parts required for fixing them. Over the first half of the academic quarter, Repair Café organizers pore over turn-in sheets and note which parts we will need to procure in preparation for the next café. In the next few weeks, we will make sure to order any missing inventory items. We also secure discounts from the local Ace Hardware stores, as we usually need to make supply runs in the midst of Repair Cafés.


As a next step, Repair Café organizers must recruit apprentices and fixers. Generally, we enjoy having a mix of old and new apprentices to foster a sense of
community and continuity within the apprentice program. Apprentice sign-ups go out two to three weeks prior to the Repair Café. We prefer to find apprentices sooner rather than later so as to prepare them for the café and to generate a waitlist, in case any apprentices must drop out.


To prepare apprentices for the upcoming Repair Café, we collaborate with the Stanford Bike Project, another club within the university, to organize one or two bike repair workshops throughout the quarter. We find that these workshops are great at providing new apprentices the confidence to fix broken appliances, while creating a sense of community amongst them.


In the last weeks before our Repair Café, we make sure to stock up on inventory, send out reminders to our fixers and apprentices, and look for any last-minute apprentice applicants.


Resources and Budget

Because the Stanford Repair Cafe fixes everything free of charge, funding from outside sources is important. As a public service organization, we receive help from both the Stanford Haas Center for Public Service as well as various grants. On average, we spend about $275 dollars at each event to provide supplies as well as food and drink for all volunteers.


Many of our supplies are scavenged from items that were too broken to be fixed (with the consent of the previous owner) as well as from local hardware stores and online sellers. Fixers who come from off-campus also typically bring a small supply of their own parts and tools. Because we have a large proportion of bike repairs, we also collaborate with the Stanford Bicycle Project in order to help both teach people to fix their bikes themselves as well as supply parts and tools. Supplies that aren’t used in the Cafe are stored in the Haas Center and are reused again at the next event, ensuring that there is as little waste as possible.


Supplies lined up and ready for use at the most recent Stanford Repair Cafe


Data Collection

In order to keep records of the items that come in and out of our Repair Cafes, we have clients fill out a Project Status Form for each of the items they want to be repaired. This form allows us to follow the progress of each broken item as it is inspected and fixed by our fixers and apprentices. In addition, clients sign away our liability in the case that fixers are unable to repair the item and cause more damage—of course, we do everything we can to ensure that every item gets repaired. After the client checks in, they take this form with them to the fixer. After the fixer has completed their work on the item, they document the results (either Fixed, Partially Fixed, or Not Fixed) and return all their forms to the organizers. At the end of the event, we go through all of these forms and tally up all the items that we have seen. We divide them into the four categories of fixers—Bikes, Electronics and Appliances, Clothing, and Jewelry. For each category, we record how many items we have been able to fix, partially fix, and not fix.

In the four repair cafes we have hosted over the past two years, we have seen over 280 items and have been able to completely fix over 200 of them. Of course, some of the Project Status Forms get misplaced during the day, and it is likely that we have processed and repaired more! We are very proud to have eliminated so much waste from our local community. As mentioned, we keep records of the items fixed at each repair cafe in the four categories of items and the three degrees of repair success. The data collected at each Repair Cafe event has been similar across all events. For example, note the similar numbers in both our Fall 2018 Repair Cafe and our Winter 2018 Repair Cafe:


Fall 2018 Repair Cafe Winter


2019 Repair Café


Data Analysis

Since the majority of our clients are Stanford students and affiliates, bikes are consistently the most common item being brought in for repair. The overwhelming majority of residents of Stanford, as well as Palo Alto, rely on biking as their primary means of transportation. Therefore, it follows that many bikes are brought in for repair—students want to avoid the expensive services of nearby bike shops. Outside of bikes, we see a large variety of items and are able to divert many items from the landfill through this effort.