May 23, 2008

FOSS helps Free Geek Vancouver become an ethical recycler

Author: Bruce Byfield

Free Geek Vancouver (FGV) is now certified as the first ethical recycler in western Canada by the Basel Action Network (BAN), and an important part of the certification is the organization's refurbishing of used computers with free and open source software (FOSS).

The certification means that FGV's practices have been audited by BAN and found to comply with that organization's Electronic Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship or e-Stewardship Program. In other words, the certification means that equipment collected by FGV:

  • Is not shipped overseas for disassembly or reuse in contravention of the Basel Convention of 1989 that forbids the export of toxic materials
  • Is not sent to prisons for recycling
  • Is reused if possible
  • Is processed by smelters and other recovery operations that meet local environmental and health regulations

In addition, by being accepted as an e-Steward, FGV commits to transparency in its operations.

With these assurances, the public can be assured that FGV is not simply dumping collected equipment in developing nations such as China and Nigeria, but disposing of it responsibly.

In becoming an e-Steward, FGV joins a growing number of e-Stewards in North America. According to Jim Puckett, BAN's founder, a growing number of organizations, including the California State University system, now have a policy of dealing only with the e-Stewards certified by BAN when recycling computer equipment. Other companies that are concerned about the possibility of worldwide legal liabilities involved in the export of toxic computer waste, such as Wal-Mart, Sony, and Waste Management Inc., are now working with BAN to revise the stewardship program to make it even more rigorous and include a greater emphasis on reuse -- a process that should be in place in about a year.

"You have to be very careful," says Puckett, talking about recycling organizations. "There's people out there saying they're bridging the digital divide, [and] helping Africa, but they're really creating a digital dump more than they're bridging any kind of digital divide. I'm very proud today to say that, in western Canada, you now have an e-Steward whom you can be sure is doing the right thing."

The role of FOSS in recycling policies

In announcing the certification, Puckett singled out FGV for its emphasis on reuse. "In the hierarchy of waste management, the highest stage is the reuse of equipment to make it last as long as possible. One of the things that Free Geek does that is so vital is that they are primarily concentrating on reuse."

Referring to FGV's practice of refurbishing usable computers with Ubuntu and other FOSS before distributing it to nonprofit organizations or needy individuals, Puckett notes, "Working with open source allows you to get the longest lifespan out of hardware possible. You can attack dumping and manufacturing with toxic material, but, even if you address these issues, you still haven't attacked the problem of overconsumption of electronics, the mass obsolescence that's taking place. You can't use market strategy to attack that, because it's not in the interest of corporations to have stuff last a long time. They want to sell you a new product real quick, and have you get rid of the old one."

A shift to hardware leasing might change such business practices, Puckett says, but, for now, FGV is "on the cutting edge of how to solve overconsumption and mass obsolescence."

Ifny LaChance, an FGV coordinator, attributes her organization's record in reuse directly to FOSS. Referring indirectly to the recent need for many Windows users to upgrade their equipment in order to run Vista, LaChance says, "Software and hardware, of course, are inextricably linked. Why should the public be pressured to upgrade just so they can operate their software, when there are plenty of alternatives that allow you to do the same thing, but that you don't have to buy, and that actually increase the longevity of the computer? Free Geek, as part of our mandate, uses only free and open source software."

Moreover, LaChance sees a direct link between reuse in recycling and the community that developed FOSS. "FOSS was designed by geeks -- basically computer consumers. It's not in their best interest to have to change their computer every two years," she says, referring to the average time that a computer lasts in North America. "That's in the manufacturer's best interest. Individuals in the community have to get in there and start pushing their own desires and motivations to get policies that actually benefit all of us."

LaChance also drew a parallel between FOSS development practices and the role that the diverse community groups and individuals drawn to FGV play in keeping the organization true to its principles. "Diversity assures that there are always lots of pairs of eyes that are watching us and asking us questions," she says, echoing Eric S. Raymond's contention that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

For some months, the Free Software Foundation has been trying to built connections between the FOSS community and environmentalists. Increasingly, too, Green Parties, including those in Canada and England, endorse FOSS in their party platforms. However, these connections are largely theoretical so far -- or, at least, confined to office policies. By contrast, FGV's mingling of FOSS and recycling is occurring at the grass roots level, in constant interaction with the general public, which makes it potentially much farther-reaching. When an activist like Jim Puckett comments, "I think we should really listen to groups like Free Geek about how to get this stuff back into the community," you know that FOSS is actually starting to influence environmentalism in a direct and practical way.

(Bruce Byfield is a regular volunteer at Free Geek Vancouver.)

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