Toronto Tool Library cuts down waste by sharing resources

By Kit Kolbegger

In a basement on the Danforth, between Coxwell and Woodbine, a library is having its community night. People chatter happily with each other as they pass their borrowed items back and forth. The things they’re borrowing aren’t books. They’re tools.

There are long tables designated as workspaces. Towards the back, a newly-built booth with its insides painted bright green houses a laser cutter. Saws, drills, clamps and cables all hang neatly on a pegboard wall.

This is the Makerspace, an extension of the Toronto Tool Library. Both are run by the Institute for a Resource-Based Economy (IRBE), an initiative that aims to cut down on waste by sharing resources.

Anyone using the Makerspace must clean up after themselves. (Photo by: Kit Kolbegger)

Emily Charles Donelson is one of the founders of the IRBE, and she runs its social media. On community night, she’s wearing bright orange construction ear muffs and taking pictures of people at work in the back room. She says the coolest thing she’s made personally at the Makerspace was a set of hexagonal shelves.

“I was like, OK, I’m not going to buy it this time. I’m not much of a tool person, so I forced myself to get into the woodshop,” she says, smiling. “I made them out of upcycled wood.”

Donelson says the Makerspace gets a lot of old materials like wood to use. “I have no idea where it comes from. It’s sometimes just there,” she laughs. She adds, a moment later, that it probably comes from the “makers,” who pay to use the space whenever they want instead of just on community nights. “They’re always bringing in materials and they just leave them for other people.”

Not every house on the block needs a drill in the basement.

It’s representative of the IRBE’s ethos — an ethos that’s changing Toronto. People come and go, sharing what they have and don’t need, and taking or borrowing the things they do need. The low-consumption model has begun to echo around the world, with versions of the Tool Library popping up in countries as far away as Ireland, Belgium and Australia.

According to StatsCan’s latest report on household consumption, Canadians spent a total of $5.5 billion on tools in the last quarter of 2017.

A 2013 report from the Conference Board of Canada found that Canada generates more waste per capita than 16 other comparable countries, including the U.S.  According to the Environment Commissioner of Ontario, Ontario produces more than one tonne of waste per person a year. About 75 per cent of that ends up in a landfill.

Professor Animesh Dutta from the University of Guelph studies circular economies, sustainability and life-cycle assessment — all topics that focus on cutting down waste, or eliminating it entirely. He says cutting down waste is critical for the future, and if we don’t “the consequences would be immense.”

Running out of resources is a real possibility, he says, and if we do, future generations would be in trouble.

“They can blame us and say, ‘The past generation didn’t do anything, didn’t consider us. They were very greedy, probably. That’s why they used all the resources.’ You never know, if they don’t have anything in 100 or 200 years, what they will say,” he explains.

Dutta tells a story in which a student told him about taking a truck to school. Dutta says he asked why the student did that when the bus is so much better for the environment.

Dutta agrees that measures like the Tool Library will help keep resources for the generations that follow his own.

“We have to be innovative … if we can reuse it, reduce it, we can keep something for the future,” he says.

Abbiyaahwu Asha is one of the Makerspace’s Tool Ninjas, who help people build projects – or build it for them, if they lack the time or skills. (Photo by: Kit Kolbegger)

Abbiyaahwu Asha says many objects can last longer than people might think. He knows tools; he’s a Makerspace Tool Ninja, showing people how to use what they aren’t familiar with and helping them build their projects.

“A shovel, you can have a shovel for at least eight or nine generations that is still usable,” he says. “On one level, it sort of hurts that people don’t know what goes into the things that we have around us. It just sort of magically appears.”

Asha has a calm voice and an open posture when he speaks. As he sharpens a hand plane, his movements are smooth and flowing. He says the decision to volunteer came easily.

“A lot of the ideas they were thinking about, speaking about were in alignment with my own personal philosophy and ideology, around reusing, around sharing, around bringing communities back together,” he says.

We have to think about what we need, not what we want.

Community is something Asha speaks about a lot. He says a sense of community is something that’s missing from modern life.

“We’re strangers to each other. Every time we interact with each other, it’s always transactional,” he says. “In order for you to be able to have a conversation, amicable conversation, with somebody, somebody has to be paying you to be doing it.”

Asha says historically people lived together, though that’s changed in recent years. The data seems to agree. According to the 2016 census, more than one in 10 Canadians over the age of 15 live alone. Only a couple of generations ago, the number was closer to one in 50.

So, Asha says, he tries to take the time to connect with people.

“I recognize that this is where people are starving,” he says.

Lathes are one of many power tools that the Makerspace offers for use. Members do, however, need to take a certification course before they can use them. (Photo by: Kit Kolbegger)

One person who says she benefited from the community at IRBE is Peggy Maerz. She moved to Toronto from Germany a few months ago. She first heard about the Tool Library through the Sharing Depot, another IRBE initiative that runs out of the same storefront. At the Sharing Depot, people can borrow board games, camping equipment, record players, raclettes and a wide variety of other things.

“I didn’t really know anybody, and then I ended up in this place,” she says.

Now, Maerz can regularly be found volunteering behind the front desk on community nights, helping new people settle in themselves.

“Everybody here is really open, and there’s so many different kinds of people,” she says. “I don’t know where I would have met these people.”

Making sure everybody has access to what they need is kind of part of our non-profit’s larger vision.

Jennifer Cote, the shop supervisor, agrees. She’s been managing and doing maintenance at the Makerspace for a year and a half. She also runs children’s programs through the Tool Library. She says she’s seen electricians, engineers and people from all walks of life come through the Makerspace.

“The tools are just part of it,” she says.

As she talks, a young boy runs up to her to ask her how to make rectangular slots in the side of a piece of wood.

“Round holes are way easier, you know that, right?” she replies. He says he knows.

Cote pauses to think.

“There’s two things I would do,” she says.  “I would start by cutting a round hole. Then — come over here, let me show you.”

She brings the boy over to a cabinet and begins sorting through filing tools.

“Start off with a hole that’s a little bit bigger than this, then you can put your corners in.”

Cote says the boy is a graduate of an after-school program the Tool Library runs. But it’s not just children or hobbyists who use the space.

Cote says some of the people who use the Tool Library and the Makerspace even own their own woodworking businesses, in cabinet-making or finishing carpentry.

“It doesn’t make sense that we’ve got these huge woodworking studios that literally only use their tools for their own use,” she says. “It actually makes a lot more sense to be able to team up and share resources.”

Donelson says that’s what the IRBE is all about.

“Making sure everybody has access to what they need is kind of part of our non-profit’s larger vision,” she says. “It’s kind of funny to say because we’re in one city on Earth, doing a very small project.”

Small project or not, when the Tool Library was in need, the community came to its aid.

Recently, it hit hard times. The founders went to Indiegogo, trying to raise $35,000 to keep their doors open. They cited high rents, costs of unexpected permits and a lack of grants available to non-profits that aren’t charities as some of the reasons it was hard to stay afloat.

Its crowdfunding campaign launched on Jan. 31. By the end of February, some 600 donors had raised over $44,000 — 126 per cent of the original goal.

“Starting the project was really for me about finding a little niche where I fit in,” Donelson says. She says people may often feel defeated in the fight against mass consumption, but defeatism doesn’t lead to anything. She recommends connecting with the people and communities who are already doing it.

Donelson says that’s been a key part of the joy in seeing the Tool Library grow. “It’s like, wow, like other people feel like this too. You’re not alone.”

She says sometimes that shift in attitude is all that’s needed to fight defeatism.

“Because we’re already involved, we feel so empowered. We’re like, ‘Of course we can change the world.’”

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