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January 2004

Old Computers are Given a New Lease on Life in Alameda County
by Deborah Orrill, CalMAX Coordinator

It has been said that the computer industry reinvents itself every 18 months. In terms of technological advancement, each year sees a doubling of PC performance speed and storage capacity. Apart from the obvious benefits of these improvements, a darker side of progress is emerging in the form of literally millions of computers being retired every year. It is estimated that more computers will be retired than are currently sold. If your company is looking for a place to donate old business computers, printers, and related electronics, there is a solution in sight.

As corporations continue to replace their computer systems, an immense number of outdated electronics are relegated to back rooms and closets. Although these electronics are not the latest and greatest technology, they are generally working units that, given some elbow grease and computer know-how are capable of being renewed. For those units that are not upgradeable, they can be stripped of their components and precious metals can be recycled.

“Sounds great,” you might say, “but who’s going to take on this mammoth challenge?” Who is going to take the time to collect, truck, recover, upgrade, or salvage old computers, printers and other business electronics? This may be the business of the future, but it requires staffing, vehicles, facilities, and most importantly, a unique and computer-savvy resourcefulness unknown to most. If such an enterprise sounds too good to be true, let me assure you, it’s not. At the Alameda County Computer Resource Center (ACCRC), such activities are the main “components” for a successful nonprofit that takes corporate and miscellaneous “junk” electronics and transforms them into another person’s treasure. As a result of said activities, ACCRC is preventing the economically disadvantaged of today from becoming the technologically disadvantaged of tomorrow.

Besides protecting the environment by recycling electronic waste, ACCRC provides technical training to disadvantaged individuals. The organization also distributes 30 to 50 Pentium-level computers a week to nonprofit organizations, schools, libraries, economically disadvantaged individuals, and developing countries. ACCRC designs its rebuilt computers to match the needs of recipients, with little or no cost to the recipient. It also provides a year of free repair and maintenance for all units distributed.

ACCRC accepts tax-deductible donations from individuals, businesses and affiliated organizations as well as any computer systems, working and non-working. “Everything is recycled, from mini-towers to mainframes, regardless of how obsolete or proprietary the technology might be,” stated James Burgett, founder and executive director of ACCRC. Burgett began this operation in a spare bedroom in Marin County with virtually no money. The organization is now housed in Berkeley with a satellite facility in Novato, California.

“Computers are becoming obsolete sooner than in the past,” continued Burgett, “namely due to the advent of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. This legislation enables corporations to depreciate their computer equipment in the second year, and then donate it to educational organizations or non-profit operations that are reconditioning the computers for schools, grades K-12. It used to be that new computers were bought and retired in three to five years; now it’s more like one to two years.” When it comes to old mainframes, obsolete and proprietary equipment, Burgett takes these units and resells them to specialty equipment dealers. Otherwise, businesses are faced with giving them away or junking them, and paying someone to haul them away as well.

The company tests units, strips the components that can be used for other systems, and fills a 40-yard bin with scrap components every week.” Secondary recyclers accept circuit boards, plastic, and steel. The steel cases go to a metal recycler, and the cables, made primarily of copper wire, are stripped of their insulation and sold to scrap dealers. Computers are also stripped of motherboards, mice, VGA and Ethernet Cards, keyboards, memory, and software.

The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are the most problematic components however, because they contain lead, which protects the viewer from radiation. As long as the monitor remains intact, it isn’t regarded as hazardous; but break the tube, or even remove it from its plastic housing, and you have a hazardous waste disposal problem. According to current regulations, the tubes must be shipped whole to avoid being classified as a hazardous material. This is a problem that ACCRC and other reuse and recycling operations have in transporting the material. Burgett explained, “It costs three to five times more to ship the whole CRT; if we could break them first, and then ship them in sealed steel drums, it would make everything easier.” ACCRC ships the CRTs to Computer Recyclers of America in San Diego at it’s own expense. ACCRC is working with the Materials for the Future Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the combined goals of waste prevention, reuse, recycling and economic development in order to find a better solution.

ACCRC is leading the way when it comes to providing non-profits throughout the world with technology. Computers are funneled to places such as Latvia, Cuba, Cambodia, Uganda, Afghanistan and Africa. Among those benefiting from ACCRC are Cheeta, a nonprofit organization working with endangered species by providing safe breeding information in the field; Info Net, a medical symptomatology database and diagnosis service providing medical information to rural Cuban medical clinics; and the Cambodian Defenders Project, an international legal group attempting to free innocent detainees.

ACCRC has also provided computers to local Bay Area groups, such as the Marin AIDS Project, Project Inform, Marin County Office of Education, YWCA, Children’s Counseling Center, West Berkeley Senior Center, East Bay Conservation Corps, We the People, Oakland Police Department, Delancey Street Foundation, and the Arts Council of Napa Valley.

Currently, Burgett is in search of additional grant money and financial donations to facilitate the ACCRC reuse, training, and donations program. “The more grants we get, the more computers we can give away; it’s that simple.”

If you are a business with a backroom or closet filled with outdated computers, you may want to contact the ACCRC. For large quantities, ACCRC can pick up your electronic surplus, and turn it around into useable equipment for nonprofit organizations and those in need, while providing your business with a tax deduction in the process. It’s a win-win situation!

—Printed with permission from Alameda County Computer Resource Center, 510-528-4052.


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