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Computers, Rise Up From Your Junk Heaps!
In Oregon, thousands of PCs never make it to the landfill. Mr. Free Geek rescues them.

Free Geek illustration Four years ago, Oso Martin had a problem. He'd been donating his high-tech skills to a nonprofit group in Portland, Oregon, and he kept inheriting cast-off computers. "People who thought they were helping us would say, 'Hey, I've got this old piece-of-junk computer -- you guys can use it, right?'" Martin remembers. Before long he had a half-dozen busted computers stacked up at his house, and more kept coming.

Martin, a fast-talking 40-year-old peace and justice activist, wanted to provide these computers to fellow Portlanders who couldn't afford new machines; he also saw that this could keep hazardous waste out of the landfill. So he began spending a few hours now and then overhauling the computers. When some friends offered to help with the tinkering, Free Geek was born.

Free Geek now operates out of a 16,000-square-foot former bakery in southeast Portland, where its staff of 19 shares space with mountains of discarded hard drives, monitors, and printers. The lifeblood of Free Geek is its volunteers, who donate time in exchange for rebuilt computers.

Volunteers who commit to Free Geek's self-paced "adoption program"start by taking apart old computers, sending the parts that don't work to a local recycler, and holding on to the rest. Those in the 16-week, six-hour-per-week "build program" take these materials, cobble together a working hard drive, and load it with open-source software such as GNU/Linux, which is free, is easily customized, and eats up less disk space than its commercial competitors. Add a monitor and a keyboard, and the result is a reasonably speedy, serviceable tool for word processing and Internet access.

Revived computers that don't go home with Free Geek volunteers are given to tech-needy nonprofits, some as far away as Ecuador and El Salvador. The group estimates that staff and volunteers have so far refurbished 3,200 machines and recycled 360 tons of electronic waste. There's no shortage of incoming material: Free Geek accepts about 60 old computers every day. The operation was kick-started by some public and private grants but now is largely supported by individual donations, sales at its computer thrift shop, earnings from the metals it salvages from computer components, and the $10 handling fee it charges for donated hardware.

Though anyone can volunteer with Free Geek ("If Bill Gates wanted to come in and build a computer, we'd be more than happy to accommodate him," chuckles Martin), many of its volunteers -- nearly 4,000 to date -- cannot afford a computer of their own. Through the Computers for Kids program, Free Geek also teaches computer building skills and provides computers to at-risk kids age 10 and up who are referred to the program by a local YWCA and a Boys and Girls Club.

While Free Geek creates happy computer owners, it also chips away at a huge environmental problem. In 2002, says a recent United Nations University report, worldwide personal computer sales hit the one billion mark. Most outdated machines are packed off to landfills, where their hefty doses of lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic threaten human health and the environment. E-waste is often exported from the industrialized world to poorer countries, where the workers who dismantle it are generally unprotected from the hazardous materials it contains.

Of course, these problems can't be solved by Free Geek alone. The European Union has passed directives requiring manufacturers to pay for the recycling of the electronic waste they create and calling for the phaseout of the use of hazardous chemicals in electronic goods. Citizens' groups such as the California-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition are calling for similarly far-reaching measures in the United States.

Meanwhile, it appears, Free Geek will continue to grow. Spin-off groups are already operating in South Bend, Indiana, and Ephrata, Pennsylvania, and Martin says there are plans for Free Geek programs in Seattle and New York City. "We've got this thing that works," he says. "It can solve a huge chunk of the problem without burdening the taxpayers, the manufacturers, or the local infrastructure. It's almost too easy."
-- Michelle Nijhuis

You can still say a gentle good-bye to that computer in your closet. First of all, act now -- the longer you hang on to the old beast, the less useful it will be to someone else. You might find a willing taker in your area through an online Freecycle group. You can also donate the machine to a deserving nonprofit, but do call first -- some groups are already overwhelmed by computers from well-intentioned donors. If you have no reuse options, call your local sanitation department for recycling ideas. You can also track down a responsible recycler through the Basel Action Network. The companies on this group's list have pledged not to incinerate electronic waste or ship it to developing countries. For more details about small and large efforts to reduce e-waste, contact the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
-- M.N.

Illustration: Dan Page

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council