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Turning Junk into Gems

As technology evolves, people purchase new equipment. This creates the need to dispose of all the old Gateways, Dells, HPs, Compaqs, and IBM-compatible units that were replaced, which in turn increases the need for recycling. The toxins in just one monitor—lead and mercury, for example—can destroy up to 140 acres of land. To responsibly eliminate excess equipment, Free Geek Penn recycles computers, at no cost, for businesses and individuals alike. Because no monetary expense is involved for participants donating equipment, it's easy for people on a fixed income as well as even large schools, hospitals, and businesses to recycle. Our main concerns are to help the state of Pennsylvania by giving everyone a free resource to get rid of all the used hardware that's no longer needed, and keep discarded equipment out of the landfill or any other place where it can contaminate the environment. Because we're concerned for the future of our children and our children's children, we hope also to create awareness of the need for proper disposal.

Reduce and Recycle

We recycle in various ways. Our favorite way also has the side effect of giving us a chance to meet people from the community. After 40 hours of community service with Free Geek Penn, each volunteer receives an Internet-ready computer, keyboard, mouse, and monitor. The computer is not exactly high-end—500 MHz, 128MB, 10GB. If we have a valid license for a Microsoft operating system, we'll load it. If not, we use a free Linux operating system such as Debian, SuSE, or Red Hat.

The 40 hours of work can be spread over any period of time, from weeks to months. Some families and friends even pool their hours to earn a computer. We've had people from ages 5 to 80 tearing apart and sorting computer components to reach this goal. The work is easy, and some people even come back after they've earned a computer. Everyone seems to like ripping and tearing apart the items, because they don't have to worry about breaking anything. These team members are lovingly nicknamed "Sharks." The Sharks seem to like the name, and we've even been blessed with a mural on our outside wall, created with computer components in a visual depiction of real sharks working at a sharking table.

The Sharks can choose whether they do the physical tasks of "sharking" or focus on mental tasks such as office work. We've even done technical training with Sharks while we work through the refurbishing process (see the next section), installing operating systems and the correct drivers to get the computer up and running. In the future, we'd like to set up classroom training to help those people who really don't know anything about computers; people who attend the classes will be able to work or donate to cover the cost of their training.

The components sorted by the Sharks are placed in separate boxes. When we have a full load, we rent a truck and make a trip to Philadelphia. Monitors and memory go to a place in New Jersey. The metal is crushed into big blocks and recycled through Ephrata Recycling. The wires we've cut and sorted go to Bannon, a local recycler. With the money received from these recyclers, we pay the rent and all other overhead, including the rental costs for the truck.

Refurbish and Reuse

Our most rewarding way of recycling is by refurbishing older computers. This plan gives us a chance to help other people. We take older, slower computers (usually 300–450 MHz), make sure that they work, and add a Linux operating system. We also do repairs. For these repairs, the customer is given a choice of either donating a suggested amount toward the cost of the repairs or spending some time sharking. This way, people on a fixed income can work for the services rendered and not have to worry about coming up with any cash.

Many of these refurbished computers are donated to worthy causes. For example, we've sent 90 of these machines to Africa—80 to a school and 10 to a clinic—with costs sponsored by Christian organizations in Ephrata and York, respectively. Within Pennsylvania, we've given computers to blind students, disabled people, and people trying to recover from drug and alcohol abuse. We've been asked to refurbish and give 60 more computers within the next month for various programs.

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