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Volunteering to save the planet

The success of a repair café in St Kilda shows that Melburnians are increasingly returning to their ‘making’ roots – saving money and creating a new sense of community in the process.


The success of a repair café in St Kilda shows that Melburnians are increasingly returning to their ‘making’ roots – saving money and creating a new sense of community in the process.

By the end of 2019, the St Kilda Repair Café reached a momentous milestone: 1 ton of salvageable household goods saved from Melbourne’s landfill.

It’s a figure that brings a smile to the face of John Hillel, a retired lecturer who has made it his mission to help Victorians ditch the “throwaway culture” for more responsible and sustainable ways of living.

“Most people genuinely hate the ‘built-in obsolescence’ that’s become an insidious part of modern manufacturing,” says John. “We’re definitely seeing more people wanting to extend the lives of their household items – especially when it comes to things that have been in their families for years.”

Those things can range from the sensible – toasters, radios, clocks, lamps and clothes – to the sentimental – toys, old jewellery, and tools that were used by one’s grandfather.

“We had a mum and daughter in here recently with a broken cuckoo clock that they obviously loved,” says John. “To see the joy on that little girl’s face when we got it working again, that was really special!”

Steadily building numbers

St Kilda Repair Cafe volunteer Tom Firestone fixes a signpost

The St Kilda Repair Café is a collaboration between the Jewish Climate NetworkExternal Link and the Port Phillip Eco CentreExternal Link . Meetings at the centre are on the second Sunday of each month.

Since the group was established in November 2017, it’s been steadily building numbers – both of volunteers (15-20 at each meeting) and successful repairs (20-40 items per meeting).

Tom Firestone, 69, is typical of the founding volunteers. A retired CSIRO instrument maker, Tom says he enjoys the chance to help people in his community – and especially, on occasion, to impart a little knowledge.

“Many people bring their kids with them, who are invariably intrigued, and you can help them learn something about how things work,” says Tom. “There’s a wonderful camaraderie between the volunteers as well. We all help each other and lend each other tools – it’s lovely!”

Facing up to the future

Another founding member is John Harland, 69, who since retiring from teaching has used his considerable DIY skills to support a community makerspace and a local bike shed. The St Kilda café is a natural outlet for his passion for people and making.

“I hope that by passing on my skills to younger people, I’m doing a little to help them cope better with a resource-poor future,” says John. “It’s easy just to lament that we’re losing all these skills, but I want to do something about it.”

John Hillel believes the return to grassroots making and collaborating provides a natural antidote to the more solitary, indulgent consumerism of recent years.

“We don’t want to take work away from professional tailors or tinkers, so we usually make a judgment call on whether someone should go to a professional – and we refer them to people we know,” says John.

“Because of our throwaway culture, many things are just not economic to repair, which our free service can often overcome.

“But most old things were made to last – and they’re nearly always worth saving!”

The St Kilda Repair Cafe can be found at 55A Blessington Street, St Kilda.

More information can be found on the St Kilda Repair Cafe websiteExternal Link .

Reviewed 06 February 2024