An estimated two and a half million tons of computers and other electronic waste, or "e-waste," is tossed out each year in the United States. Only about 25% is recycled. The rest takes up space in landfills, and sometimes seeps lead and other hazardous chemicals into the ground and water supply. One local nonprofit's found a way to reduce that toxic load, and help people, too.
A few students are gathered in the computer lab of an after-school program south of Pittsburgh in Dormont. It's almost the last day before summer vacation, so it's a little quieter than usual.
"I'm not really sure what my level is right now… I think I'm on level, I don't know, maybe the third one," eighth-grader Jordan Harris said while furiously pressing keys to keep a virtual rainbow marble from slipping off a maze of platforms in a game called "Marble Blast."
"There I go again. I'm like the master of falling off cliffs," said Harris, laughing.
Harris' marble is falling into oblivion on one of ten computers donated by ComputeReach, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that refurbishes older model computers,mostly Macs, and gives them to community groups that need them.
Her computer, which she's named "Ruby," came preloaded with educational software and balancing games like Marble Blast. There's one for each kid in this new program for middle school students. Many don't have computers at home or have to share.
The computers come from a warehouse in Pittsburgh, stacked from floor to ceiling with neat rows of all the parts needed to build a complete computer: keyboards, screens, cables. That's where Dave Sevick, the head of ComputeReach, makes sure each reused machine is up to snuff.
"This little cable right here is the power source. Goes right into the back of the hard drive to power it," said Sevick, "so when you turn on your computer all the components spin up at one time."
Mac consultant Sevick started the organization eleven years ago in his basement with just a few machines found in a dumpster, and he's still pulling out logic boards and replacing old hard drives with faster ones.
"It's quite simple, and it's something you can teach to any volunteer that comes here to lend a hand to make this all work," Sevick said.
With the help of volunteers, over 3,000 refurbished computers have gotten new lives in area schools, shelters, and community centers since 2001. Some have been shipped as far as Liberia and El Salvador.
Sevick said his group is careful about where the computers end up. When they do reach the end of their usefulness, Sevick said they're recycled responsibly. Educating the kids and adults who receive the computers is part of closing that loop.
"I let them know that these most likely came from Elizabeth [Forward] School District," Sevick said. "They were cleaned by us at Goodwill. The keyboards were tested at Easter Seals. The packing was done from Giant Eagle bags, and tell them we're going to take all of the scraps away so there's no wasted materials."
ComputeReach has reclaimed about 200 tons of material from the waste stream in the last year, but it's clear that environmental impact is only part of the equation.
"This is a machine that was destined for the trash but still is going to be used here probably for another five or six years, and it took us about an hour to get it ready to go help a child," Sevick said. "That's what we're all about."
Jordan Harris has seen big benefits from the program. She said it helps to work on math — her least favorite homework — in the lab. She also researches gemstones, a subject she likes much better, but she's also making a connection about the environment. Her serious Marble Blast game face breaks into a big smile when asked how she feels using the refurbished computer.
"I try to find ways to help the planet out," Harris said. "Right now we're going to be using bottles to make crafts and stuff for school. I like reusing a lot, because it helps."
She said she'll be back again next year for more Marble Blast … and homework.