“Helping the Needy Get Nerdy. . . .”
Who has handled over 8 tonnes of computer equipment since June of 2007? Not the kid down the street selling PS3’s on eBay, if that’s what you were thinking.
It’s the Free Geek Vancouver Technology Centre [link], whose coordinator, David Repa, contacted me after my post last week about the new BC electronics recycling program. Herbert had already written a little about his conversation with David Repa at the Massive conference earlier this year [mbv], but, when David offered to show me “a much closer to home recycling option,” I thought the program sounded interesting enough to get the full tour.
First of all, “recycling option” doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Free Geek Vancouver is about. Sure that’s where it starts: the 2nd Avenue facility (between Main and Quebec) accepts unwanted computer hardware, working or not, every week on Tuesdays through Saturdays.
But that’s only the beginning. . . .
From the loading dock, volunteers examine the equipment received. Each computer passes across several different triage stations: inventorying the completeness of the computer (Does it contain a motherboard? RAM? Hard drive?), then a second level to determine the specifications of the components (What kind? How big? How fast?), and then a series of tests to see which pieces are still functional.
From there, a number of different things happen depending on the results of the triage.
Non-functioning equipment, for example, goes into an area for recycling. Free Geek Vancouver has an arrangement with a private electronics recycling firm in Surrey, carefully selected after 6 months of scrutiny for their environmental record and their recycling approach. “Some electronics recycling programs,” David explained, “use the plastics as fuel for smelting the metal components. But using plastic as fuel also requires coal, and when you do a BTU analysis of the amount of energy the plastic is contributing, you often find it’s not actually helping at all. So it’s usually better to break down the plastic and recycle it into other plastic products rather than burning it.” Other materials, like the lead in CRT monitors, has to be either reused or safely stored, hence the $10 charge for accepting computer monitors. All other equipment is accepted free of charge, no matter the condition.
Functional equipment is divided according to the components’ reusability. For hard drives, for example, the drives smaller than 5GB are typically destroyed and recycled, with larger drives being securely erased using DBAN, and shelved for reuse. (However, even some limited quantities of the older components are kept around for sale to hobbyists or rental to film studios as year-appropriate props). All the best components are then rebuilt by another team of volunteers into fully functional Ubuntu Linux machines [ubuntu].
“Then what happens to those?” I ask. And this is where Free Geek Vancouver really shines.
“Some are used for our community computer lab, but most go to the adoption program,” David responds.
The Free Geek facility boasts a lab of about eight LTSP workstations [ltsp], where community members are welcome to use the machines during the day, and where volunteers teach computer skills to others who come in. The cornerstone event is “Windowless Wednesday”, where a crack team of Linux guru volunteers offer free classes on installing, configuring, and using Ubuntu Linux. “It’s great. We even have people who haul their whole machine to our facility from home, plug it into an empty corner somewhere, and get help from each other on what hasn’t been working,” says David.
And how do they keep all these volunteers coming back week after week? That’s where the adoption program comes in. Free Geek offers one of the adoption computers to any volunteer who has given 24 hours of time to the program. No questions asked. Other computers go to various non-profit organizations and other groups who make special arrangements with Free Geek, with equipment prices or donations negotiated individually with each group, and often installed and configured onsite by Free Geek volunteers.
“So, Free Geek is partially about recycling, part electronics reuse, part computer classes and clinics, part community outreach. . . . What *is* this place?” I ask. “Which function is the main one? What do you call yourselves?”
“All of them, in combination,” David answers. “We choose to describe it as ‘Building community through technology.'”
And from there, looking around the room, it suddenly makes sense to me. A man nearby is testing and rebuilding PCs with his son. Others are huddling around a group of monitors being tested. And in the time I was there I’ve been told stories of grandparents learning their way around a computer with their grandchildren, of a wealthy suburbanite learning about Linux from a homeless volunteer, of people who have never had a computer before thrilled at the idea of actually getting their first real email address. All working together and learning from each other.
Information about Free Geek Vancouver:
117 E. 2nd Avenue (between Quebec and Main)
Hours are Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 6pm, except for Thursdays, when they close at 3:30pm.
Volunteer opportunities are always available.