Hackerspaces offer bottom-up approach to the circular economy

Hackerspaces offer bottom-up approach to the circular economy

Hackerspaces or makerspaces are local community clubs or networks that offer a location for people to meet and share tools and expertise related to the repair and design of products – usually consumer electronics. Hackerspaces have emerged in response to concerns that electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) too rapidly becomes waste (WEEE), being discarded because of minor faults or because software needs upgrading.

Hackerspaces also reflect a concern among consumers that they have too little control over the electronic devices they own. Because devices are complex, it is hard for most people to carry out even small repairs, which can effectively force them to buy a new device even if they do not want to. 

One example of such a hackerspace or makerspace initiative is the Restart Project, a London-based social enterprise that runs events where technical assistance is provided to people that want to learn to repair their own devices and gadgets. In a TEDx talk from 2013, Restart Project co-founder Janet Gunter explained that bottom-up reuse and repair initiatives could complement top-down circular economy initiatives, which often concentrate on resource recovery.

According to Gunter, large companies have the capacity to collect WEEE and to extract the valuable resources from it – such as metals and minerals – which can then be used as a resource for new products. This recycling and reuse of secondary raw materials has the advantage of reducing reliance on virgin materials and reducing waste, but is not necessarily less energy or emissions-intensive than obtaining new raw materials. Gunter argued that more should be done to step in before EEE becomes WEEE, and that a collaborative approach is the best method.

The Restart Project relies on volunteers who know about electronics to offer advice to people who bring their faulty EEE to “Restart parties”. As the initiative develops, more knowledge is gained about devices and common problems, making it quicker and easier to carry out repairs. The initiatives could lead to more sharing of information and proposals for better product design being made to manufacturers, which could over time help make complex EEE more repairable and reusable.

Since it started in 2012, the Restart Project estimates that it has “fixed and saved” 1.3 tonnes of electronics, preventing it from becoming waste. The most popular items that have been repaired are computers and “home entertainment” devices such as televisions and DVD players.

Hackerspaces are expanding in many different directions, and are taking different organisational forms. The resource hackerspaces.org lists about 2000 around the world, with concentrations in Europe and North America. Many are entirely voluntary, while others self-fund by charging membership fees.

Hackerspaces can also evolve into businesses. In the United States, the company TechShop has several locations where professional equipment is provided (such as laser cutters, electronics equipment and metal working equipment) along with advice from technical experts. Customers pay a membership fee and can use the facilities and equipment to repair products or to develop new ideas. TechShop also offers a number of courses. TechShop has plans to appear in Europe, with a facility in the Ile de France planned to open during 2015 in partnership with the DIY chain Leroy Merlin.