Transforming e-waste into digital equity

For housing providers, digital access is critical to the success of their residents. The people they serve need a computer to apply for jobs, apply for services, and pay rent. At the same time, the speed at which technology is changing means we throw out an estimated 10 million metric tons of electronic waste each year, just in the United States.

But challenges of digital exclusion and and e-waste don’t have to conflict. Rather, they present the opportunity to connect your community to the digital tools they need without spending thousands of dollars on new technology.

Tech refurbishers across the country—often nonprofits ourselves—are repurposing unwanted electronics for digital inclusion programs, aiming to lower the cost to clients and curb the environmental impact of e-waste. Participating in the cycle of reuse means that technology sourced from government, businesses, community organizations can be further used by community members rather than going straight into a recycling plant (or worse, a landfill).

At Free Geek, we processed over 1 million pounds of e-waste in 2016, and in the same year, returned about 3,500 refurbished devices to the community. Based in Portland, Ore., we strive to make computing accessible to people of all income levels by providing free and low-cost devices and digital literacy training to individuals and nonprofit organizations in the Portland area.

Donated, tested, and refurbished technology fuels our unique community programs. This technology is then made available at a low cost in The Free Geek Store, given to volunteers in exchange for community service, or provided to students through the Plug into Portland program. Through multi-stakeholder partnerships and with the support of ConnectHome USA, we’re piloting Earn-a-Computer, a digital literacy program for Portland HUD housing residents.

The benefits of reuse are clear to our program participants. “What an enormous amount of time and perhaps missed opportunities this has saved connecting to job applications, the ability to type resumes, cover letters, speak to prospective employers and communicate in general,” said one housing authority resident. “Due to this class, I am looking forward to at least 2 job fairs… I was made aware of this because I looked it up on the computer! On the Internet!”

We’re thrilled to be a Connect Home USA Stakeholder. Through this partnership, many more in our community will receive technology and training, helping them to not only accomplish important daily tasks, but open the door to new opportunity.