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Nonprofit makes use of castoff computers

United States, November 29, 2009

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Erik Robinson

The Vancouver Columbian
November, 2009

Workers in developing countries have long handled the electronic detritus of American consumers.

Now, thanks to a partnership between a new Vancouver nonprofit organization and Portland-based Mercy Corps, schools in many of those countries will benefit from our computer castoffs.

Earlier this month, 217 monitors made their way aboard a truck to Mercy Corps headquarters in Portland.

Mercy Corps, the well-connected international aid organization, accepted 217 desktop computer monitors from Vancouver's CREAM organization — Computer Reuse, Education And Marketing.

Oso Martin, CREAM's executive director, said there's plenty more where that came from.

"As long as people keep consuming and upgrading, that gives us our material," he said.

Martin founded the Portland nonprofit Free Geek in 2000 as a community-oriented high-tech re-use and recycling agency. In 2006, he left Free Geek to start his own private enterprise recycling electronics. After that venture ended with the 2008 collapse of the commodity market, he was hired as CREAM's first executive director.

CREAM takes e-waste, but it also refashions usable equipment for resale.

During a recent tour through CREAM's warehouse and retail space in a building it shares with Habitat for Humanity's new ReStore at 5000 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Martin gave the impression of competence combined with boundless energy.

CREAM continues its main mission to divert e-waste from ending up in landfills or in the Third World, where laborers burn, smash and pick apart electronic waste scavenging for metals.

A state law, which took effect in January, enables Washington residents to return old televisions, computers and monitors for free rather than discarding the hazardous material in a landfill. The law requires computer and television manufacturers to underwrite the new statewide recycling program, eliminating the need for Clark County to continue the CREAM program it started as a waste-reduction project in 2003.

CREAM is forging ahead.

Proceeds from the thrift store already cover about a third of the group's monthly operational budget of $18,000, Martin said.

Since reorganizing as a standalone nonprofit, the organization also offers free education, Internet access and computers to families in need. Martin expects to make CREAM completely self-sufficient by the time a $330,000 subsidy from the county runs out in 2011.

"We will be self-sustaining for our basic operation," Martin said.

As the organization continues to ramp up, Martin said it will naturally accumulate more excess equipment.

"The thing we have to spare is working monitors," he said.

Some of those monitors will be forwarded to Mercy Corps, which primarily distributes donated computers to impoverished schools setting up computer labs. Matthew Schwartzberg, senior material aid officer for Mercy Corps, said working computers are a major upgrade for many schools in Iraq and the Palestinian West Bank.

"A lot of these schools don't have anything — blackboard, or chalk, or books, or paper. You name it," Schwartzberg said. "A computer is that much more important there."