Inside the new share market

Living Well | Story: Justine Costigan | Photos: Shannon Morris | Posted on 25 September 2019

Waste not want not: introducing the new share and repair movement. 

As politicians grapple with the vexed issue of recycling and waste, in local halls, libraries and churches across the state ordinary people are quietly getting on with the job of reducing landfill, one jar of jam, broken radio and ripped shirt at a time. 

Determined to halt the tide of over-consumption and waste, this grassroots movement is introducing the age-old concepts of share and repair to a new and enthusiastic generation.

From repair cafes to food swaps and mending classes, organisers have been overwhelmed by the response to the opportunity to reduce consumption and waste through repair, reuse and sharing. And these hubs of activity have quickly become more than just places to fix things, but also somewhere to share knowledge and skills while building connections and friendships.

The share economy is waging war on waste, helping people live greener and more sustainable lives.

Shared harvests

In the cake cabinet at tiny North Melbourne cafe Beatrix, a delicate lemon sponge layer cake oozes whipped cream and curd. The meyer lemons for the cake came from a local tree, owned by a customer who has been donating them to the cafe since it opened in 2011. 

Owner and baker Nat Paull calls these cakes her “backyard bounties”, baked with locally grown fruit, vegetables and herbs brought in by customers. Nat says these locals love knowing that the produce isn’t going to waste. In return, she thanks them with cake, coffee and sandwiches.

This philosophy of sharing food and reducing waste is also behind the global food swap movement that sees local communities gather to exchange produce. The mission is simple: to provide a grassroots response to the problem of food waste. And it is a huge problem. Sustainability Victoria reports that Victorians throw away 250,000 tonnes of food each year, with each household’s contribution valued at $2200. 

At the Greensborough Library on the second Saturday of every month, the local food swap group is doing its bit to make sure excess produce doesn’t head to landfill. One of 79 Victorian food swap groups listed on the Local Harvest website, it welcomes all offerings from plant seedlings to fruits and vegetables, herbs, homemade jam, kombucha, eggs, gardening books and tips, and recipes. 

On this winter Saturday, the group’s table holds lemons, grapefruit, some books and an assortment of herbs and seedlings. 

Sabi Buehler has been a member for eight years. Today she has brought Herb Robert seedlings (used to make a therapeutic tea) and plans to take home some dill. At home her garden has silverbeet grown from seedlings obtained at the swap. 

Growing her own food is important to Sabi, as is making sure nothing is wasted. “I bought spinach the other day. I used the leaves then planted the roots for fresh spinach. I do the same for spring onions and potatoes.”  

Another member, Katie Elsen, arrives with children in tow and a huge bag of grapefruit, harvested from her mother’s backyard. “She goes away in winter,” says Katie, “so there is no one to pick and eat the fruit. This is a great way to make sure it’s not wasted.”

Cake from Beatrix bakery
Yarraville repair cafe
Yarraville repair cafe

Beatrix is dedicated to baking great cakes from good things.

The Repair Café is about reducing the volume of raw materials and energy needed to make new products.

Tools out

Preventing old appliances from going to landfill is the focus of repair cafes, the volunteer-run initiatives that match those with skills to individual repair projects. Popular in the United States, the concept is relatively new here, with an estimated 10 repair cafes throughout Victoria. 

At the Yarraville Community Centre, where the Inner West Repair Cafe meets every month, the small hall lined with tables is humming. At each station a volunteer works with a toolbox or a sewing machine to repair small appliances, bikes, and even clothing. Each volunteer takes the time to show the appliance owner what they are doing and how they’re fixing it. “It’s an exchange of skills, with people learning how to fix their broken object,” says coordinator Jenny Lindsay. 

Each repaired appliance is weighed and noted, so the Repair Cafe can report on the number of objects saved from landfill. 

Repair cafe customer Peta Fleming has arrived with a broken radio for repair and an orange and almond cake – made with an electric mixer repaired for free by the cafe. The cake, still warm from the oven, is for the communal morning tea table. “If you take a broken appliance to a repair shop they charge you a fee just to look at it,” she says. “It didn’t seem right to offer money here, so I wanted to bring something in to say thank you to the volunteers.”

A similar concept is also taking off in Melbourne’s inner north. The Brunswick Tool Library allows members to borrow tools when they need them and expert volunteers are on hand to give advice and help with projects. Tool Library President Doug Hartmann says the library has almost 1000 tools, many donated by people who no longer have a use for them. Some have been rescued from the kerb, repaired and tagged for safety. At the end of a tool’s life, it is pulled apart, and the parts reused or recycled.

Members are a mix of men and women of all ages. They come to borrow tools for gardening projects, home renovations, maintenance or to build furniture. “I love coming down and hearing people talk about their projects, what they are trying to achieve. It’s become part of the social infrastructure,” says Doug.

Make do and mend

On Tuesday nights at The Bridge community centre in Thornbury, Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald teaches mending skills from basic stitching to patching, darning, machine mending and needle felting – the popular 3D sewing technique that can be used to make decorative repairs.

After a few years teaching mending workshops and taking commissions, Erin knew there was a huge demand for these old-fashioned skills. 

“A lot of people are thinking about the environmental issues [of throwing away clothing], but there isn’t a lot of information on how to do it,” she says. “Mending is very easy, there’s a low barrier to entry and it’s really empowering.” 

A 2019 IbisWorld industry report shows that the Australian fast fashion market grew by 11.8 per cent a year between 2014 and 2019, fuelling a throwaway culture that, according to a 2017 YouGov report, sees four out of 10 people putting unwanted fashion items in the bin, rather than trying to repair or recycle them. 

Charity shops are also overwhelmed with donations of used clothes. Mending clothes you already have instead of discarding them is one way some are resisting the throwaway trend.

“People are very excited to learn,” says Erin, whose students range in age from early 20s to retirees. One student travels more than 30 kilometres to get to the weekly class. “Some have never even used a needle and thread,” she says.

Kate Fenby, who enrolled in Erin’s mending classes earlier this year says the course gave her the confidence to give mending a go. “I didn’t learn the skills when I was younger,” she says. “Erin taught me to give it a try and that there’s really no right or wrong – [simply] experiment, be creative, just do it. There is something so satisfying about using your hands and being able to say, ‘I fixed that’. ”

Mending classes
Mending classes
Mending classes

Ordinary people are quietly getting on with the job of reducing landfill, one jar of jam, broken radio and ripped shirt at a time.

State of waste

Victoria’s waste collection and recycling systems have been under intense scrutiny over the past 18 months, triggered by China’s announcement in January 2018 that it would no longer be taking low-quality mixed recyclables from Australia and the recent collapse of Victorian recycler SKM. 

According to recent Sustainability Victoria Waste Data Service reports, in 2016-17 Victorians generated  
12.9 million tonnes of waste, with 4.2 million tonnes sent to landfill and 14 per cent sent overseas for processing. 

While the state government is working on a policy to transition to a circular economy – where manufacturers use recycled materials and products are made to be repaired, creating a production and recycling loop – the immediate waste crisis has yet to be resolved.

Meanwhile local municipalities are trialling the collection of food waste for composting to reduce organic matter going into landfill, a significant contributor to greenhouse gases.

Other initiatives include the 1 July ban on e-waste, with Victoria investing $16.5 million to upgrade e-waste collection and storage facilities across the state.

Second-hand style

October’s Buy Nothing New Month is a call to action for anyone interested in challenging their consumption habits. Founder Tamara DiMattina says the initiative is designed to encourage people to think about their purchases and how they can contribute to reducing waste. 

The campaign urges people to consider buying second-hand, borrowing or renting instead of buying new. “The first question to ask yourself is always, ‘do I really need it’,” says Tamara. 

A huge fan of op shops, eBay and markets, the stylishly dressed public relations professional hasn’t bought anything new – with the exception of underwear, food and medical goods – since starting Buy Nothing New Month in 2011. 

“Every time we buy something we’re making a statement about the world we want to see,” says Tamara. “Everything we do has an impact and we can all be part of the solution.”