On a recent sunny Saturday near the banks of the Willamette River, teenagers gathered on a warehouse loading dock called the "smash zone." Before a crowd of cheering onlookers, they took baseball bats to their old computer printers and fax machines, breaking them into hundreds of pieces before the remnants were swept into a giant recycling bin. Welcome to Geek Fair 2006.
Inside, hundreds of technology aficionados – some in business suits, others in Pink Floyd T-shirts or sporting a Mohawk – competed in video games, tried to "dunk the geek" into a pool of cold water, or just lingered beneath a giant poster of the Linux penguin, the icon of open-source software. Ultimately, however, Geek Fair 2006 confirmed the success of Free Geek, a small computer recycling outfit located in a downtown warehouse. The five-year-old company has drawn accolades across the world for its ability to motivate large numbers of Portlanders to donate, recycle, and reuse old electronics.
Now it seems electronic waste recycling, or "e-cycling," is catching on nationwide. More grass-roots nonprofits are springing up, dedicated to tackling the waste problem caused by discarded electronics. A growing consumer awareness of the lasting environmental impact of "e-waste" – more than 250 million personal computers and 100 million cellphones are tossed aside each year in the United States – has prompted some states to pass legislation banning certain toxic materials from landfills. And a number of domestic manufacturers now offer e-cycling programs to their customers as an additional selling point.
"In the last several years ... we discovered that this was an issue that resonated with many consumers," says Ted Smith, senior strategist for the Silicon Valley Toxics Association. "More and more people realized that they didn't know what to do with the old electronic gear that was building up in their homes."
Growing concern over where e-waste actually ends up is prompting many consumers to find better solutions than just leaving outdated computers on the curb. In its first five years alone, Free Geek salvaged more than 760 tons of electronics that would have otherwise littered landfills. Today, some credit the group's aggressive, multipronged approach as the inspiration behind a burgeoning e-cycling revolution across the US.
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