Archive for the ‘recycling’ Category

Lately, I’ve been learning about the ewaste problem. I’ve written an article on the subject, and, last night, I attended Free Geek Vancouver’s airing and discussion of the Basel Action Network’s (BAN) two films on the problem: Exporting Harm and The Digital Dump. Knowledge of the situation is so alarming and depressing that I’m almost afraid to turn my computer on and add to the problem. Instead, though, I’ve been considering about what I could do in my own life to improve the situation.

Most people, if they stop to think, wouldn’t be surprised that the problem of discarded high-tech hardware is growing. These days, many households have not only multiple computers, but also multiple televisions, cell phones and mp3 players.

However, what people don’t know is that most hardware is full of toxic substances, including lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants. Nor do they know that North American countries routinely ship the junk to developing nations like China, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan against the wishes of those country’s governments, using loopholes to get around the Basel Convention, the international treaty that is supposed to prevent such trade. There, the waste is stripped of any valuables under dangerously unsafe conditions and the remnant is burned, releasing toxic fumes.

And if all that isn’t enough, even supposed recyclers are shipping ewaste overseas. That’s right: even when you think you’re doing the proper thing, you may be adding to the problem. Many recyclers won’t tell you what they’re doing, either, citing trade secrets as a reason for keeping you uninformed. Even those recyclers who would prefer not to ship overseas often have no choice, because local means of dealing with the waste don’t exist.

BAN advocates legislation that makes manufacturers responsible for the disposal of their own products. Such laws already exist in many European countries. As part of this effort, it is also working with other environmental groups to encourage manufacturers to reduce the toxins in their hardware.

Besides supporting these efforts, and trying to deal only with true recyclers, what else can one person do? I found myself considering this question last week when I bought a new laptop.
Mindful of the ewaste problem, last week I decided that I would use Greenpeace’s assessment of the leading hardware manufacturers as a guide when I went to buy a new laptop. I chose to buy a Hewlett-Packard product, since Hewlett-Packard has one of the better records in removing toxic substances from its products.
I give nothing up by making this decision, since Hewlett-Packard’s laptops have a good record for reliability. In fact, I might have bought a Hewlett-Packard machine purely on its own merits. As things were, the company’s record on the ewaste problem was one of the deciding factors between buying from Hewlett-Packard rather than Acer or Toshiba.
Still, no company’s record is especially strong, so I still felt a few twinges of uneasiness. Never mind that my last laptop was bought eight years ago, and was used until it became unreliable.
During last night’s discussion, I suddenly realized that I could do more. As soon as I finish this blog entry, I’m going to write a letter to Hewlett-Packard, congratulating them on their awareness of the problem, and adding that it was one of the reasons I bought one of the company’s products. I’m also going to urge everyone I know to shop in the same way, and let whatever company they buy from know what they are doing.
Of course, I don’t deceive myself that a couple of dozen letters will have a huge influence on manufacturing decisions. Yet one of the common arguments you hear from manufacturers is that there is no demand for greener products, so enough letters of this sort might just help them decide to change their practices.
That’s why I’m also urging anyone who reads this blog to do the same. The effort is minimal, and can’t hurt – and just might do a small piece of good.

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In part of my never ending efforts to get out of the house for more than my daily exercise, last night I went to a meeting of the local Linux Users Group at the new Free Geek warehouse just off Main Street in Vancouver. I went away more convinced than ever that Free Geek is one of the more innovating activist groups about town.

Free Geek Vancouver, whose origins I’ve written about professionally, is the first Canadian implementation of an idea that originated in Portland, Oregon. Basically, the idea is to combine the recycling of computer equipment with education and the promotion of free software. For a nominal fee, the group will recycle computer equipment, taking care that it is disposed of ethically – and not just dumped in landfill or shipped to a developing nation where recovery of the raw materials becomes a health hazard to those who undertake it. Higher end computers are refurbished and loaded with free software like Ubuntu and OpenOffice.org and sold or donated to charities and other needy groups. Volunteers can also work with Free Geek for a set number of hours in order to get a computer of their own.

Officially, the group is run by consensus. However, if David Repa and Ifny LaChance, the two Free Geekers to whom I’ve talked the most are typical – and they seem to be — I’d say that it’s equally fuelled by apparently limitless supplies of enthusiasm and energy – to say nothing of a talent for principled promotion. Recently, for example, the group turned down coverage in a national newspaper because the journalist wanted to do a stereotypical article focusing on poor people who had benefited from the group’s services. Believing the story would violate the confidentiality in which they pride themselves, the group refused. Of course, with the coverage they are getting in the local media, they hardly needed the exposure, but many groups wouldn’t have resisted the temptation to compromise for the sake of publicity.

And the group is resourceful, too. What other group would turn having one of their members stopped with a bicycle cart full of computers on the way back from a client into an opportunity to enlist the local police department as supporters?

At the same time, the group is far from humorless. So far as I’m concerned, a group that claims to prefer “catalyst” and “primordial ooze” instead “founder” is refreshing in its refusal to take itself too seriously. The same humor is found in the movement’s slogan, “Helping the needy get nerdy since the beginning of the third millennium.”

Besides the resourcefulness and outlook of the people involved, what I like best is the way that Free Geek combines two activist groups that traditionally have little contact. Too often, social activists never think to apply their convictions to the software they use, and geeks never think of applying their equally high ethical standards outside of computing.

For over a year, I’ve been writing about the Free Software Foundation’s efforts to bridge these gaps, and I’ve even made some attempts to help in this effort myself, notably in an article called “Free software!” for the New Internationalist. Now, in Free Geek, I’ve found another group interested in doing the same.

I’ll need to think about it, but I’m seriously thinking that one of the ways I’ll be getting out of the house more is as a volunteer. At the very least, I’ll be sending a cheque once I recover from the shock of paying taxes on my sole proprietorship.

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