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Rebooting Canada's Approach to E-waste

A bright idea to shrink the digital divide, and Third World landfills.

By Reanna Alder, 1 Aug 2007, Tooth and Dagger


Know where your computer goes? Greenpeace/Enrique Soriano photo.

David Repa and Ifny Lachance, along with the rest of the folks at Free Geek Vancouver, want to give you a free computer.

All it will cost to participate in their "adoption program" is 24 volunteer hours. During that time you will help to refurbish six computers, five of which they'll give away to low-income people. At the end of it, you walk away with number six, a souped-up "Freekbox" outfitted with the latest version of Ubuntu (a user-friendly distribution of Linux, a free, open-source operating system).

Right now Repa, Lachance and co. are paying for the program out of their own pockets. They say they're concerned about the world's widening digital divide -- and the tonnes of toxic e-waste produced by Canadian consumers each year -- and they’re betting volunteers and donors will take note.

'Needy get nerdy'

Back in November of last year, Repa, 29, quit an 11-year stint in auto recycling to devote himself full-time to getting the first Canadian Free Geek off the ground. The original Free Geek in Portland, Oregon, served as a model.

Lachance, 32, a local bike activist, was already familiar with the Free Geek concept and jumped on board.

"We're dealing with a very large surplus of [discarded] computers [and] a lot of people who are desperate to connect and have the same things that a lot of people take for granted," Lachance says. "We take the two problems and put them together."

The Vancouver group shares its Portland parent's slogan: "Helping the needy get nerdy since the beginning of the 3rd millennium."

Profit in non-profit

But in financial terms, finding support in the city is proving more challenging than Repa and Lachance expected, with would-be backers reluctant to take the group seriously.

"[People] need to learn that non-profit doesn't mean no money," Repa says. "Free Geek [Portland] runs a half a million dollar budget."

Free Geek Vancouver

A province-wide electronics waste collection and recycling program beginning today will mark a crucial step in ensuring that toxic tech-junk is dealt with responsibly. However, so far the public and local recyclers are being left in the dark on perhaps the most important question: where's it all going to go?

The industry-led Electronics Stewardship Association of B.C. (ESABC) in partnership with Encorp Pacific, have developed a pilot recycling system for "end-of-life" electronics such as computers, TVs, printers and fax machines.

But Sarah Westervelt, an e-waste toxics research analyst for the Basel Action Network (BAN), affirms there has been no official announcement about which three B.C. recyclers will be taking on the waste that will be collected at the Return-It Depots.

"Now, of course all this starts on Aug. 1, so you can imagine that the decisions have been made. Whoever is taking the equipment has to be ramped up to handle that," says Westervelt, whose organization works globally to prevent toxic trade and dumping.

At stake is how and where the 33 toxic elements and compounds that are found in computers -- including mercury, cadmium and lead -- will be handled. 140,000 tonnes of e-waste are dumped in Canadian landfills each year.

"One of our challenges is that we want to use recyclers that are as local and as sustainable as possible," says Ifny Lachance, director of the non-profit recycling organization, Free Geek Vancouver, which refurbishes and redistributes computers.

Free Geek wants to participate in the program by reusing as many units as possible and redistributing them to people who can't afford computers in the Lower Mainland.

"For us to be locked into dealing with the materials handlers that the Recycling Council of British Columbia decides are good is not really okay with us. We know that we're doing things that nobody else is doing," says Lachance.

While consumers will still be free to give used electronics directly to reuse organizations, BAN's main concern is that the ESABC may not grant access to the equipment dropped at Return-It Depots to reuse organizations like Free Geek, resulting in many functional electronics being disposed of unnecessarily.

"We really believe that the best outcome for human health and the environment would be to try to extend the life of these products," Westervelt says. She is concerned that the environmental handling fee paid by the consumer on new electronics (ranging from $5 to $45) fails to get to the root of the problem because it lets manufacturers off the hook.

"Requiring the manufacturer to take their products back at the end of their life cycles is really the best way to drive redesign and phase out toxins, especially if the manufacturer has to pay these end-of-life costs and incorporate them into the price of a new product."

-- Rhianon Bader / Tooth and Dagger

Still, Repa says, Free Geek is already making a big impact. "I was filling out a grant application and one question said 'What's one major lesson you've learned in this venture so far?' It was a very simple answer. I wrote: 'You don't need a building to build community.'"

He estimates that over 100 people have become involved with Free Geek since the group's inception in November of last year.

In addition to monthly meetings and an active mailing list, Free Geek hosts "Windowless Wednesday" Linux clinics, movie nights and other events at various locations in Vancouver, including Spartacus Books, SPEC and Video In. All events are, of course, free and open to the public.

E-waste buzz

Repa couldn't have picked a more opportune moment. E-waste is big news. With documentaries like Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes and GOOD Magazine's video on YouTube, technology users are starting to see images of the devastation caused by electronics "recycling" in India, China and other developing countries.

According to the Basel Action Network, a non-profit committed to bringing the developing world into compliance with the Basel Convention, "Canada and the U.S.A. are the only developed countries in the world that have failed to control export of hazardous electronic waste to developing countries."

We have also failed to demand that electronics manufacturers take responsibility for the end-of-life recycling of the products they produce.

Reuse your refuse

Canadian lawmakers are finally stepping in. This February, the province of British Columbia passed legislation that will come into effect this month, making it illegal to throw out many forms of e-waste, including computers and entertainment electronics. (It is already illegal to do so in Alberta.)

Included in the new electronics stewardship plan are regulations against exporting e-waste to non-OECD or non-EU member countries, and the use of prison labour.

A recycling fee -- about $45 for a desktop computer -- will be charged to the consumer at purchase. Much of the volume will be handled by Encorp, the same company that handles glass bottles and tetra packs across the province.

But Free Geek is poised to reuse the refuse before it heads to the smelter. And if their application for charitable status is successful, they will have the advantage of being able to offer tax receipts to individual and corporate donors in exchange for second-hand hardware.

Open-source values

Although there are other non-profits in the Lower Mainland that refurbish and redistribute donated computer hardware to the needy (including the Electronics Recycling Association, reBOOT Vancouver/Computers-to-Go and Computers for Schools), one of the things that sets Free Geek apart is its commitment to the open-source ethos.

On a practical level, people can't use older hardware with a Microsoft product.

"It would just be a slow dog," says Repa of the resulting refurbished computer. "A lot of other charities that give out computers use Windows '98, or Windows 2000. They either have to charge for the computers, or give out obsolete operating systems."

For those wary of a non-Microsoft alternative like Linux, Repa says open-source has come a long way. "I just sent a Linux box to my folks back in Ontario. They're in their 60s, and they love it. It's completely stable, there's no viruses, no spyware, nothing.... I figure they're a good litmus test of how Ubuntu is doing."

But open-source software is more than just a convenient way for Free Geek to avoid paying licensing fees and make better use of old hardware. Lachance believes that planned obsolescence represents a "cynical relationship" between companies and consumers. She says the use of open-source represents a strong stance against proprietary hardware and Digital Rights Management. "If you don't want to be promoting the ideologies of a lot of these companies, then it's important not to use their products."

Reduce, reuse

In addition to the adoption program, the centre will offer a build program for the more ambitious, a variety of free workshops, and a thrift store selling second-hand parts and accessories. "Last year [Free Geek Portland] did just under a quarter million in thrift store sales," Repa notes.

What that means is a lot of keyboards, mice and monitors getting a second chance, fewer coming off the shelves at Future Shop and tonnes less e-waste going to the landfills, here or abroad.

Now all you have to figure out is what to do with your broken and obsolete cell phones, pagers, PDAs, MP3 players, stereos, digital cameras, calculators, clock radios, video game systems, TVs, VCRs, walkmans, discmans, ghetto blasters and tamagochis.

[Editor's note: Free Geek will be presenting a talk by Sarah Westervelt, and the Basil Action Network films "The Digital Dump" and "Exporting Harm" on Aug. 2, 7 p.m. at SFU Harbour Centre. For more info visit or call 604-879-4335.]

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