Zero-waste profile #2: Free Geek Toronto.

Image from Free Geek Toronto.

Image from Free Geek Toronto.

This article is part of the Starfish-original series, "Strides Towards a Zero-Waste Country", where we highlight the efforts of Canadian organizations working towards integrating circular economy and zero-waste frameworks into everyday life.

Who: Free Geek Toronto

Where: 180 Sudbury Street, Toronto (originated in Portland; additional Canadian location in Vancouver)

What: Collect, recycle, and refurbish electronic waste

Why: Reduce landfill contamination of e-waste; provide computers at reduced prices for priority consumers in tight financial situations

Contact: w: www.freegeektoronto.org | t: @FreeGeekToronto | f: Free Geek Toronto

Although zero-waste initiatives are largely considered an environmentally driven initiative, there is often much more to the picture than saving the planet from garbage.  Take, for example, Free Geek.  Sure, they collect used electronics, such as laptops and keyboards, but their mission expands far beyond the recycling of e-waste.

Helping others through technology.

Aside from the environmental benefits of collecting e-waste, Free Geek Toronto (and its other locations) is also tackling the social aspect of consumer sustainability.  

Once a piece of equipment (typically a laptop) is reassembled, reset, and ready to go, Free Geek makes sure those products go back in the hands of consumers – at a reduced, reasonable price.  The purchase of refurbished computers is prioritized for those who otherwise may not be able to afford such an essential piece of technology.  This includes individuals without the finances to go out and buy a brand new laptop, but who have recently gotten off financial assistance, are re-entering the workforce, or have children heading into college or university.

“We want to help people who otherwise may not be able to afford a $300 laptop to have to choose between food and technology,” says Shannon Cummings, Executive Director.  “We focus on reselling working laptops to these folks because they can take it to a local library or a Tim Horton’s and access free Wi-Fi.  It is one less cost for them to worry about.”

Many of us take our computer skills for granted, but Free Geek helps to connect those who have far less experience with computers – those just getting back into the workforce, those from older, yet employable demographics who have not yet had an opportunity to learn the workings of modern computers, or those looking to get better connected on a tight budget.

The problem of e-waste.

Have you ever found yourself holding up a dead mouse (the electronic version, not the rodent), and thinking, “Does this go in the garbage, or…?”.  The answer is a resounding no, and the solution is to bring your e-waste to Free Geek.  They will savage what they can to turn it into something useful, and then properly recycle what cannot be savaged. 

Shannon revealed to me this fact: “It is now easier to conduct mining efforts in landfills than in the ground.”  In other words, in some places it is more advantageous to mine for minerals required for electronics in the place where we send our garbage rather than actual mines.  Scary, huh?  This is properly recycling our e-waste is so important. 

“People these days have very busy lives.  It is usually easier for people to just buy something new instead of fixing things – it’s less time, less hassle,” says Shannon.  Furthermore, it can sometimes be just as expensive and time-consuming to fix a laptop – diagnosis, repair costs, labour costs – than it is to simply buy a new one.  I related this to modern-day personal printers, commenting on how the cost of ink is typically more expensive than the cost of a brand new printer with ink.  Shannon provided a valuable piece of advice: “We need to stop buying printers.  Especially in today’s world – we have the option to go paperless, to print elsewhere at a store – printers are very hard to repair and almost impossible to refurbish.  If there’s one piece of advice I have, it’s to stop buying printers for your homes.”

Another major problem that Free Geek is trying to tackle is the fact that many people are not sure where to dispose of their old electronics, so we sort of close our eyes and toss it in the trash, all the while knowing that it probably shouldn’t end up in a landfill.  And we’d be right to feel guilty for that.

“I think this organization really works to promote three important goals: environmental activism, social activism, and connecting people to technology”, says Shannon.  Although the City of Toronto has an e-waste program in place, other Canadian cities have yet to implement similar programs.  Some environmental activism – that is – contacting city council is crucial for getting e-waste out of the landfill and into places like Free Geek. 

Just because you think it’s broken, doesn’t mean it is broken.

Shannon’s last words of advice when it comes to your electronics? “Just because you think your electronics are broken doesn’t really mean they are.”  She urges consumers to invest a little more time and effort into discovering whether it is truly broken, or just requires a quick (or even not-so-quick) fix.  If it can be fixed, this option is far more beneficial than letting a laptop sit around unused or end up in the landfill.

Do you have e-waste collecting dust in your house?  Perhaps an old laptop, but you don’t know what to do with it?  Visit www.freegeektoronto.org to donate your e-waste.  Thanks for keeping e-waste out of landfills!  (Or www.freegeekvancouver.org if in the Vancouver area!).

Interested in volunteering with Free Geek Toronto? Visit http://freegeektoronto.org/get-involved/volunteer for more information.