Repairing Australia’s waste problem

Australia has a waste problem: a big one.

In 2016–2017 alone, we produced 67 million tonnes of the stuff.

Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. China effectively banned Australian recycling in 2018 and the federal government is currently moving towards barring waste export altogether – ultimately meaning more and more ‘recycling’ is ending up in landfill.

It’s become obvious to all levels of government, commentators and industry players alike that we need to explore alternatives to dividing our garbage into different coloured bins (valuable as that may once have been).

“The emphasis on recycling distracts people. It’s far more energy intensive to make a biodegradable coffee cup, for example, than to avoid using that cup to begin with – just use a KeepCup or eat in,” says Thomas Lee senior lecturer at the School of Design and project co-lead on UTS’s Repair Design project.

In other words, a shift in attitude as well as behaviour is needed. And Thomas believes good design could be key.

“Over the last five or so years there’s been a steadily building amount of scholarly and popular interest in issues associated with repair and maintenance. It makes sense for designers to have a voice in the discussions around repair because design plays a central role in creating the things we live amongst.”

This idea is the driving force behind the UTS Design School Repair Design project, which received a $5000 Social Impact Grant last year.

One of its key aims was to kick-start informed and realistic conversation about what a healthy and visible repair culture might look like – to this end the team held workshops, panel discussions and even a reading group.

Through these events, they were able to tease out two distinct threads in the repair scene. While ‘conspicuous repair’ deliberately stands out, is a way of signaling to others who we are – think Punk, the DIY movement or your local hipster café; inconspicuous repair culture is more circumspect – focused on simply returning objects to functional use, often as a way of saving money.

There is, of course, some overlap between the two, but Thomas hopes this kind of insight will inform future research into the life cycle of everyday objects, particularly how the way objects are valued (or not) affects everyday behaviour.

“We’re keen to drill down further into the barriers to repair and how these can be overcome,” he says.

As part of Repair Design, an impressive level of media interest was also garnered – panel discussions and interviews have been broadcast by ABC Radio and Radio Adelaide and articles have appeared in The Conversation, The Sydney Morning Herald and Vogue Australia.

Mainstream media attention deepens the debate and raises public awareness, argues Thomas, but it also significantly contributes to research outcomes.

“A lot of academics labour under the false pretense that research occurs in a hidden room somewhere and then communication happens in another disconnected sphere. But knowledge is given form as we attempt to express it. How we communicate our research in inextricably part of what that research is.”

Photo credit: Jess Dunn

The Problem

Australia has a waste problem which cannot be solved by recycling, but there is limited understanding of how best to focus attention on alternatives like repair and reuse, and to change attitudes and behaviours.

The Response

The Repair Design team brought together design professionals, community organisations and the general public to discuss repair and reuse at a series of workshops and panel discussions around Sydney. They also garnered an impressive level of mainstream media coverage in support of the events.

What helped accomplish this?

Connections with The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre in Marrickville and the E-Waste Watch Institute contributed significantly to various events’ success – as did DAB faculty support.

What has changed as a result?

The events have helped the project team refine their approach to future research – concentrating on practical barriers to establishing a more widespread acceptance of reuse and repair culture, and how these can best be overcome.

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Impact Area



UTS Faculty or Unit



Dr Thomas Lee, Senior Lecturer, School of Design
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