Earth First article

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Article written by Pete Forsyth. Published in Earth First Journal, summer 2006. Ran alongside an article about the Basel Action Network's Exporting Harm report from last fall. (Note: The #SIDEBAR did not run in the published version, and there may be a couple other changes as well.)

Oregon non-profit attacks e-waste at its source

Far from the villages of Africa, and the third-world dumping grounds described in the Basel Action Network’s reports, an Oregon-based non-profit has pioneered a novel approach to e-waste management.

At the Free Geek Community Technology Center in Portland, discarded technology (including over 35,000 PCs over five years) is processed locally, not shipped to a distant continent and an unknown fate. In the process, Free Geek’s dedicated volunteers generate fully functional refurbished computers (over 6,500 to date) to give away or sell for cheap in the local community. They put equipment many would consider “outdated” to good use, and they dismantle the rest, disposing of it safely.

In 2005, Free Geek collected 500 tons of unwanted computer equipment from local individuals and companies upgrading to newer technology. This e-waste is similar to what BAN reported is shipped to places like Lagos: piles of worthless (and potentially dangerous) junk, but also a few treasures, and a reasonable amount of junk that can be turned into treasure with a moderate amount of work.

In its five year history, Free Geek has developed and honed methods to process both treasure and junk responsibly and efficiently. The goal is to get the best possible use out of every kind of donated item. The process is under constant refinement as the incoming equipment changes, and as creative minds come up with new uses for it.

Most of the e-waste Free Geek receives has value and can be sold, either as scrap or after being refurbished into working systems. But some is hazardous, has no value for reuse, and costs money to dispose of properly.

Ideally, revenue from selling the “good stuff” (like gold, power cords, aluminum, and refurbished PCs) would cover the processing costs for the “bad stuff” (like lead, mercury, cadmium.)

But the high cost of properly disposing of one increasingly common item—the cathode ray tube monitor (CRT)—makes that ideal unattainable.

If you’ve ever picked up a CRT monitor (that’s the kind that looks like an old TV), it should come as no surprise that it contains a great deal of lead. All that heavy metal shields your eyes from the harmful cathode rays that put an image on the screen. But when you “throw out” the monitor, that lead is no longer your friend: if handled improperly, it will seep out of a landfill into the water supply, causing brain damage in children.

Free Geek is flooded with old CRT monitors as many people abandon them in favor of newer LCD-based “flat panel” monitors.

Processing these donated monitors represents one of Free Geek’s highest expenses, and so it is the one area where donators are required to pay a fee. Dropping off a monitor at Free Geek—whether it’s working or not—costs $10. Sometimes donors are put off, especially when dropping off a working monitor. But they generally come around once they learn about the dangers of lead and the challenge of disposing of it safely.

But explaining these issues to each donor is time consuming and inefficient—and if there’s one thing geeks hate, it’s inefficiency.

Free Geek founder Oso Martin advocates a different approach. Ideally, makers of computers and electronics would provide funding for responsible disposal at the end of their products’ life cycle. Sponsorship of local grassroots organizations like Free Geek would solve the e-waste problem in the communities where these type of efforts were put forth. Unfortunately, companies have little incentive to take this approach, and have failed to take the lead in developing this kind of program.

Currently there is a big effort by local and state governments to require a disposal fee to be paid at the time of purchase - kind of like a bottle deposit. This is the approach taken in many European countries, and in the state of Maine. Free Geek is supporting legislative efforts along those lines in Oregon and nearby Washington. If passed, such legislation would direct money to Free Geek for processing monitors and other items. Individual donors would no longer have to pay a fee when dropping off monitors, so Free Geek’s staff and volunteers could do less explaining and more recycling.

If this kind of legislation sounds like an uphill battle, you’re right. But an uphill battle has never stopped a geek. Five years ago, Free Geek’s unpaid founding members struggled to come up with rent; today, Free Geek has 12 paid employees, operates in a 15,000 square foot facility, and has hundreds of volunteers who process over 40 tons of e-waste per month. New Free Geeks have followed Portland’s model in Ohio, Indiana, Chicago, and Washington, and the Portland organization is exploring an expansion into the suburb of Gresham.

Free Geek’s volunteers maintain the web site, at http://freegeek.org. If you think your community might be ready for a Free Geek of its own, check the “startups” web page at http://wiki.freegeek.org/index.php/Free_Geek_Startups, and join the mailing list at http://www.freegeek.org/about/intergalactic/startup-list-signup/ . Free Geek volunteers will answer your questions, and attempt to put you in touch with others in your community who share your interest.

The Geeks looking forward to hearing from you. But if it takes them a day or two to respond, don’t be surprised…breaking apart and rebuilding computers can be surprisingly addictive!

SIDEBAR

Every day, Free Geek provides a great service to third world nations by providing…well, a whole lot of nothing. The less Portland garbage that ends up in places like Lagos and Uganda, the better.

But recently, Free Geek has been able to supplement that "nothing" with a little something extra.

Free Geek currently lacks the resources or the knowledge to plan and carry out delivery of working PCs overseas. But when Gulu University and the Beaverton Rotary Club approached Free Geek about donating computers to the Uganda university, they were glad to help.

Martin Chase, the coordinator of Free Geek’s Build Program, is currently in Uganda (in central southern Africa), hooking up oveer 100 PCs and other equipment that Free Geek donated, and training local system administrators to use free software.

Martin has been keeping a web log of his journey, which makes fascinating reading. Below are his thoughts about 23 days into his journey. He paints a grim picture, but it is Free Geek’s hope that building ties will open unknown opportunities down the road.

people waste computers here.
they don't know how to use them,
but they want them desperately.
they'll buy the best computers they can,
following the advertisements call,
but once in possesion of an advanced piece of technology,
they sit there in boxes,
or get used for a tenth of their potential.
the best funded organizations are the worst,
as they try to become more like the their developed idols.
further,
this country does not know how to deal with trash.
true that they are loath to actually throw away one of these expensive
boxes after they have, through disuse and time spent in a harsh
environment, let it fall beyond repair,
but the end game for these things is to be thrown in a pile and burned.
that's what i see.
i'll have better organized and developed thoughts afterwards,
i think.
miaou,
- martin

Clearly, as much cultural work needs to be done as technological. As countries like Uganda struggle to avoid being left behind, their resources are stretched thinner and thinner.

If organizations like Free Geek can slow the flow of unsorted garbage, Ugandans will be more able to focus their attention on productive things, learning to use tech to its fullest potential. Assisting with education, where possible, is important as well.