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Portland, Ore., Recycles Computers Back to Local Schools

When city-owned computers are no longer usable, Portland, Ore., nonprofit Free Geek refurbishes the units for local schools and other community organizations.

by / August 23, 2013
Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Free Geek receives desktop and laptop computers from the city to refurbish and recycle back into the community. Photo courtesy of Free Geek

Computers used by Portland, Ore., city employees do not end up in a landfill once they reach the end of their lifecycle. They are donated to a local nonprofit called Free Geek where they are refurbished and distributed to local organizations.

Through a partnership developed informally years ago that became official in 2009, the city of Portland and Free Geek work together to ensure the used computers go back into the community. Priority is given to local schools and other nonprofits, said Cloy Swartzendruber, senior information systems manager for the Portland Bureau of Technology Services.

“The problem we had here at the city was that we had this computer equipment and didn’t know what to do with it,” Swartzendruber said. “It was a struggle to try and find somebody that could dispose of it in an environmentally-friendly way.”

Free Geek works with local businesses, nonprofits and other institutions to repurpose or recycle computer equipment with help from a combination of paid staff and volunteers. According to the organization’s website, the idea is to divert e-waste from landfills. At no charge, the staff picks up used computers from the city of Portland once a week.

Before the computers are sent to Free Geek, Swartzendruber explained, hard drives are wiped to remove all remaining data. Free Geek staff then perform their own data wipe and set to work readying the computers for reuse.

Portland city government uses nearly 5,500 desktop and laptop computers that cycle out of use from the city every five years. Dean Erskine, information systems technical analyst, said on average, the city donates roughly 1,000 computers a year to the nonprofit, all of which have met their end-of-life cycle according to the city’s pre-determined standards.

But for local schools to accept the refurbished computers, the units need a Windows operating system – a system Free Geek does not install, said Richard Seymour, Free Geek’s director of operations. Because the nonprofit only installs Linux operating systems, Free Geek works with a second nonprofit, Portland Youth Builders, to install Windows operating systems on the units going to schools.

Since it accepts computers from multiple organizations, Free Geek takes an extra step to make sure that machines previously owned by the city make their way into Portland classrooms.

“[Free Geek] made sure when computers come in from the city, they get a little sticker on them,” Seymour said. “So that way we know when they leave, if they’re not going to someone in the city, we made a mistake and would stop it at that point.”

Swartzendruber said from the city’s standpoint, the partnership with Free Geek advances two beneficial goals -- helping the community and environmentally friendly e-waste disposal.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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