AUGUST 2008

Goodwill computer refurbishment has multiple rewards

Two women enjoy shopping for a computer at their local Goodwill store.

More electronic equipment, particularly computers and accessories, could be refurbished and upgraded for the secondary market in the United States, says Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, director, media relations and spokesperson for Goodwill Industries International (GII).

—Christine Nyirjesy Bragale

Goodwill’s 168 local agencies across the country (excluding Alaska and Utah) operate stores in which various products are sold for reuse, with the revenues generated to fund job training and other related programs.

In 2005, GII received 27 million pounds of electronics, the equivalent of 963,000 computers, via donations. In 2004, local Goodwills received 23 million pounds, equivalent to 821,000 computers.

“The numbers vary from place-to-place, but nearly 30 percent of the electronics we receive are unusable,” says Bragale. “We receive a wide range of computers. Some can be resold as is, some need repairs and we try to do whatever possible to refurbish and resell the equipment. There are instances where it needs to be demanufactured and the parts recycled. A number of Goodwills have Computer Work stores where they will sell different computer parts and pieces.”

In addition to promoting the recycling of computer equipment, the demanufacturing and refurbishment facilities provide a work component to Goodwill in terms of jobs and job training for computer repair and refurbishment in the private sector.

Goodwill employees, many with disabilities, refurbish or recycle donated computers as part of the e-waste program.

“They create jobs and we train people how to fix computers,” says Bragale. “We love those great working computers because there are a number of Goodwill locations where they give computers to their program participants and provide them with on-line career training.”

But taking in tremendous amounts of computer equipment also creates problems, particularly the cost of disposal in an environmentally responsible way.

“It is very costly,” says Bragale. “For every dollar that we spend disposing of something that we cannot sell and use, that is $1 we don’t have to spend on job training programs.

Because disposal costs bite into revenues, the national leadership is calling upon Congress to enact legislation that would provide a solution to help with the development of sustainable national recycling and reuse infrastructure for unwanted electronic products.

“Product design changes could facilitate the re-use, disassembly and recycling of products,” says Gerardo Castro, director of contracts and environmental services at Goodwill Industries of Southern California, in recent testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology. “Standardized chargers for cell phones are an example of design changes that would add minimal costs to the product while achieving substantial impact in the reuse area.”

Bragale says there should be federal tax credits for manufacturers who partner with social agencies, as well as grants and other kinds of initiatives that “are going to spur good solutions and help people and organizations that can handle that problem. Goodwill is a natural stop in the lifecycle of computers and pretty much anything in your house that you don’t want anymore. We are looking for support because charities cannot bear the cost of disposing of these items. The ultimate goal is an environmentally sound recycling system, whatever the nuts and bolts are. The whole point is to keep the material out of the landfill.”

Goodwill is seeking federal legislative help to assist in the development of a sustainable infrastructure, support incentives to manufacturers for product design changes and to offer recycling grants and other initiatives to help stakeholders handle this problem.

Due to the quantity of computer equipment that Goodwill receives, most of its organizations do not have advertising campaigns to secure computer-related items.

“In San Francisco, the Goodwill there has a campaign of ‘Goodwill, not landfill’ and that is for all items,” says Bragale. “There are 25 Goodwill organizations that work with Dell under the Dell Reconnect Program. We have been working with Dell since 2004 and the program is growing. Together, we have collected 32 million pounds of computers.”

Goodwill recently launched Dell partnerships in the greater Rochester (July 3) and Buffalo (June 16) areas in New York State.

Goodwill allows local associations to develop programs and relationships with city and state governments to meet local needs. Goodwill does not have national guidelines on what type of computer equipment to accept, with some local organizations taking anything, some taking equipment that is a few years old and others not accepting any items.

Goodwill has approximately 40 computer recycling facilities nationwide, including Austin, Texas; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Sacramento and Santa Anna, California.

Taking a computer apart does not require sophisticated tools, but having tech-savvy employees is essential as they can quickly determine which parts require replacement and which parts, such as video cards, can be sold as parts.

Barbara Kyle, the National Coordinator for the San Francisco-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC), says reuse is where there are more options.

“Sadly, most of the big computer makers don’t make their equipment to be fully upgradeable,” she says. “You can upgrade the memory and other things, but they are not made to keep up with processors.”