Discarded computers get a second life

Old computers can be salvaged and used again thanks to recycling. Photo: Computers waiting for repair and a new life

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., March 24, 2013 – In Montgomery County, Md. —where I live — we have an excellent recycling program. Besides weekly collection at the curb, county residents can bring their old appliances and electronics, yard waste and construction materials to the “transfer station.” This is a very large facility that recycles as well as receives garbage of all kinds.

As one drives out of the facility, it is impressive to see the large number of discarded computers, printers, monitors, and all types of electronics. One is likely to wonder what the fate of these items will be. Wonder no more. Many of these items are just starting a second life.

There are at least two nonprofit organizations in the county that take any computer related hardware, refurbish it and make it available to others in need. One of these organizations is Phoenix Computers. While it receives donations from other organizations and business in the area, it also has authorization to comb through the discarded electronics at the transfer station.

It is amazing what is left there. Beside the old computers, monitors and printers that one expects, there are high end, relatively new computers, cell phones, Ethernet switches, servers, and computer peripherals of all types and from different sources. It is not unusual to find items that were purchased in Europe, Asia and even Australia.

Once a desktop, laptop, printer or monitor arrives at Phoenix Computers, there is a triage area where the piece is first evaluated. The age of the computer, the expected operating system and possibility for upgrades are determined. If the computer can be refurbished, then keyboard, mouse and monitors are connected and an attempt is made to boot the computer.

Waiting to be repaired at Phoenix Computers

If the computer boots readily, then it is evaluated as to the speed of the installed CPU, the amount of memory (RAM), the storage available (hard disk size) and network connectivity. From this first look, then a decision is made regarding the operating system that the computer is capable of, whether it needs additional memory or a larger hard drive.

The goal is to install Windows 7 Professional in as many computers as possible. Phoenix is a certified computer “refurbisher” and has an agreement with Microsoft to install its operating system in refurbished computers for a nominal fee. These licenses are called Citizenship Licenses and are restricted to individuals and families of low income or with disabilities.  Therefore they are not available to the general public.

If a computer doesn’t have the capabilities to run Windows 7, then Windows XP Professional is installed in the computer. If the computer does not boot, then its different components are diagnosed and replaced if necessary. At a certain point the computer may be deemed to be non-recoverable.

Then it is taken apart and its components stored to fix and/or enhance other systems. Excess components are exchanged for more needed ones with other computer refurbishers. Other components are donated to organizations that use them or the parts for different purposes, including the arts.

Components salvaged from non-operational systems are evaluated and tested for capabilities and operation. They are then classified and stored to use in other systems. These include hard drives, optical (CD/DVD) drives, memory modules, modems, network connectors, disk drives, etc.

Once the unit is deemed usable, then a clean install of the operating system is done. This type of installation erases (formats) the hard disk and starts with a clean disk where to install the operating system. The computer is then reconditioned with all the necessary drivers to operate all the components like sound, video, network connectivity, human interface devices (mouse, tablets, etc.).

Phoenix then adds a number of free software packages to increase the usability of the computer. One of these software packages is Microsoft Security Essentials, a free security suite. Shortcuts are added to the desktop for assistance sites from the computer manufacturer and instructions to improve the computer experience of the user.

Besides the “dumpster diving” provenance of the computers, there are a number of public, private and personal donors.  Some of us were surprised that this part of the operation turned out to be rather easy. After less than one year of operation, we have more than enough donated computers, especially desktops. (Please don’t stop donating.)  People tend to hold on to laptops a lot longer and we only get a few of these.


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Volunteers do all the work at Phoenix. No one is paid a penny for the hours spent making these computers available to others. We also enjoy the work very much.

So, who benefits from all this work, and what is the cost?

Phoenix does not provide these refurbished computers directly to individuals. Potential recipients have to be registered with agencies that Phoenix partners with. These agencies provide a referral to clients that then can come and purchase the equipment. The costs of these computers and peripherals are very nominal.

A system with Windows XP, a computer, a CRT monitor, a keyboard and a mouse costs $10. If you want a Windows 7 computer with a CRT monitor, keyboard and mouse it will set you back $25. LCD monitors, when available cost between $20 and $35 depending on size; printers for $20 to $25, that includes a full ink cartridge.

Finally, if you want to donate please contact Phoenix Computers. With a little additional work you can guarantee that the unit will be made useful to others.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, civil engineer, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles - ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket - in 21st Century Pacifist <http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/21st-century-pacifist/> at The Washington Times Communities. Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus #TWTC and Facebook at Mario Salazar.


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Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering.  Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change.  He will also try to convey his joy of being old.

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