ReUse Center Focuses on Reducing E-Waste

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Tompkins Weekly 9-28-15

By Jackie Doherty & Michael Troutman

More than 70% of a laptop’s energy usage comes from the manufacturing process, rather than its operation by consumers, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. “Planned obsolescence” which according to The Economist “is a business strategy in which the obsolescence (the process of becoming obsolete—that is, unfashionable or no longer usable) of a product is planned and built into it from its conception”, combined with the rapid advances in technological design and manufacturing contribute to large-scale generation of e-waste. This volume of waste continues to increase every year, and even if recycled, the process is often toxic and highly energy-intensive. The parts inside a computer are manufactured from mined materials that are often extracted and processed for manufacturing through harmful environmental practices and exploitative labor practices.

In its publication, “The Global E-Waste Monitor – 2014”, the United Nations University estimates that 46 million tons of e-waste were generated worldwide in 2014 alone. Nearly 17% of that waste, or 7.82 million tons, was generated in the United States, and only according to the U.S. EPA, only 40% of this waste ends up being recycled domestically. E-waste recycling is more common now than ever before, thanks to increased consumer awareness and the efforts of environmental advocates to bring about legislation banning curbside disposal of electronics and requiring increased corporate responsibility for the handling of e-waste in New York State. However, the number of computers, phones, tablets, printers, and other electronic items being manufactured, and the pace at which new models replace the older ones, are increasing right along with them.

At Finger Lakes ReUse, we take great pride in the work we do to prevent waste, relieve poverty, and build community through reuse activities. One of the ways we carry out this work is through our eCenter computer refurbishing program, where we work to reduce the impacts of e-waste and planned obsolescence, create job training opportunities, and connect people with affordable alternatives to the high prices of new electronics and computers.

Visitors to the Triphammer ReUse Center often marvel at the tremendous volume of power supplies and cables available on the shelves behind our intake desk, take a trip down memory lane when they find floppy disks and dot matrix printer paper on our sales floor, and rejoice when they find a replacement cell phone that works on their carrier’s network.

What the average customer does not see firsthand is the amazing volume of work that our volunteers, trainees, and staff carry out in order to extend the lives of these unique and constantly-changing items. Often we receive donated computers that are at or near the end of their perceived useful lives. However, by evaluating and testing the systems, cleaning them out to address overheating and sometimes repairing or replacing failed components, our eCenter team can create refurbished and useful machines.

When a computer slows down, stops turning on, or needs an upgrade to meet your needs, here in Tompkins County, you have the option of bringing it to our eCenter for servicing. Our team diagnoses problems and works with you to decide if repair is the right option for you. Common repairs our eCenter team performs include removing viruses, physical clean outs to address and prevent overheating, as well as replacing parts like failing hard drives or broken laptop screens. When repair isn’t feasible, possibly to due cost vs. computer value considerations, the eCenter can also provide data recovery / transfer services to move documents, pictures, etc. to a new system. As of last month, we have provided 583 repairs and hundreds more service diagnostics to help keep local computers running smoothly and out of the waste stream.

The process of refurbishing computers is labor intensive and requires a lot of time, space, tools, and supplies. We set our prices as affordably as possible, but we know that even the lowest prices can be out of economic reach for people who are facing lean times. With that in mind, we provide discounts on our computers and computer repair services to customers with demonstrated financial need, and are working on a new initiative, the ReUse Community Fund, which will help us provide further financial assistance to customers when these discounted rates are still beyond what they can afford.

As of last month, we have sold 904 computers at the Triphammer ReUse Center, putting us on track to sell our 1,000th refurbished computer by the end of 2015. Our donors and customers have also helped us prevent the disposal of thousands of printers, cell phones, monitors, keyboards, speakers, cables, components, and more. Through our ReSET Technology job skills training program, our trainees have gained valuable skills that they have taken to jobs at Brightworks Computer Consulting, Staples, Databound Solutions, Southside Community Center, Tompkins Community Action, Cornell University, and beyond.

Our eCenter program is made possible through the support of our donors and customers, our dedicated volunteers and trainees, and funding support from Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division, Park Foundation, United Way of Tompkins County, Tompkins Charitable Gift Fund, Community Foundation of Tompkins County, Legacy Foundation of Tompkins County, Social Service League, Autodesk Inc., the Howland Foundation as administered by the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, and the Triad Foundation. Thanks to the support of the community, we are doing everything we can to prevent e-waste locally, keep computers and their components in active use, and make affordable options available to people in our increasingly digital-dependent world.

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