Sitka Technology Group

The Impact of E-Waste

At Sitka, we’re closely connected to the benefits of technology for improving the management of and social engagement with our environment. However, our work doesn’t have an intimate relationship with the hardware our products rely on or the environmental and social costs of digital progress. 

Life Cycle Stages of Electronics
Basic Information about Electronics Stewardship (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Last week, a group of Sitkans volunteered at Free Geek, a local non-profit, to get a better understanding of the role of recycling and refurbishment in the life cycle of electronics. We discovered that recycling electronics or extending the life of a digital device through refurbishment is just the first step in addressing the externalities of the technology economy.

Since its founding in 2000, Free Geek provides solutions in the Pacific Northwest for two major issues of our technology economy: electronic waste and digital equity. From their large warehouse on Portland’s inner eastside, the organization provides a location for individuals and institutions to recycle e-waste. This “waste” helps support their programs that increase technology access and literacy.

Volunteering at Free Geek
Sitka's Mike Jolliffe and Laura Nickelhoff dismantle computers for recycling.

Free Geek’s reuse/recycling program works to reuse as much donated technology as possible. Those devices that cannot be reused/refurbished are disassembled into recyclable components (steel, plastic, copper wire, etc.) and shipped to recycling partners who handle the materials in an environmentally-responsible manner. This work has diverted over 1.3 million items from landfills.

But Free Geek is much more than a recycling center. Their mission is keenly focused on making digital technology accessible to everyone, bridging what is called the digital divide.

Digital Divide
Digital Divide – A Critical Analyis (Shweta Barupal)

As our society becomes ever-more dependent on technology, full participation is compromised for those who don’t have access to home computers, smartphones, reliable internet, or the knowledge of how to use these technologies. This digital divide increases social inequalities along economic, educational, and social lines and reinforces barriers that affect already marginalized communities.

With the help of volunteers, the heaps of old hard drives and monitors are the building blocks used to rebuild digital devices in support of those with limited access. The devices are dismantled, their data wiped, and then they are rebuilt. With over 900,000 hours of volunteer support from 35,000 individuals, Free Geek has granted more than 72,620 technology devices to non-profits, schools, community organizations, and individuals.

Sitka Volunteers at Free Geek
Sitka staff ready for their afternoon combating e-waste at Free Geek.

Sitka’s effort to support Free Geek was a small, yet significant, step in better understanding the systems that our work sits upon. The technology sector is constantly changing and improving, creating more advanced and user-friendly tools that capture and analyze larger amounts of data, faster. While we at Sitka aim to use these tools to create a positive impact for our environment, it is important for us to be conscious of the environmental and social impacts of the technology economy so that we may better tailor our actions toward positive change. 

Devin