Computer recycler threatened by bureaucratic nightmare

Visitors to the two Bay Area Maker Faires will remember the amazing supercomputing cluster made from recycled PCs running on a veggie oil-fueled generator, and Silicon Death Valley, a fun cemetery of computer industry cast-offs. Those were the work of the good people at the Alameda County Computer Recycling Resource Center, a fantastic Berkeley, California-based non-profit group that recycles anything that plugs into the wall. Its director, James Burgett, is a champion of DIY culture, opening his doors to makers looking for old gear for projects, but their primary focus is "the charitable placement of computers in the hands of those who do not have access." As the ACCRC slogan goes, "Obsolescence is just a lack of imagination." Now though, the ACCRC is in trouble. The Department of Toxic Substance Control of the California Environmental Protection Agency has issued the ACCRC a violation that could make it very hard for the group to stay in business. And, quite frankly, that's a damned shame.


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MAKE: founder Dale Dougherty has more at the O'Reilly Radar blog. From his post:

Let's imagine that you set up a non-profit to recycle electronics and divert computers from going directly into landfills or otherwise being destroyed by a grinder. You look for ways to refurbish these components and possibly recombine them into functional computers that go out to areas and institutions that have difficulty obtaining computers. You might even collect some of the vintage electronics that comes through the door and hang on to this stuff because you think it's cool and somebody may want it someday. Yes, your place looks a bit like a junkyard but it's one that employs people to do something with the junk you collect. And while you have organized these efforts as a charity, you have figured out how to break even from providing these recycling services and you don't need donations or government support.

You do all this and then a government inspector drops in one day. This is an inspector from the Department of Toxic Substance Control of the California Environmental Protection Agency . You've had inspectors before and the visits have been cordial. Your operation is not unlike the Salvation Army or the Goodwill. You have worked with the DTSC in the past. You think you're a friend of the environment because you repurpose equipment that would otherwise be waste.

You expect to pass the inspection but no. Instead, you get written up. Perhaps it's because there's a new inspector in town with something to prove. No matter, you've now been handed a Section 1 violation, which means they can shut you down or make it very hard for you to stay in business. The inspector says that you don't have a proper inventory of all the parts. The inspector says that you have to get rid of equipment after a year, so you'll have to clear out your museum of collectibles. This is the letter of the law and you're expected to follow it. You're given 30 days to comply.

Now, if this really was you, you might get upset. You'd see all the work you've done about to be undone, unravelled. It seems nobody cares that you're in this mess and the government, which seems to promote and support environmental cleanup, is using narrow interpretations of its regulations to block the operations of a group engaged in precisely this kind of activity.
Link to O'Reilly Radar post, Link to James Burgett's blog, Link to ACCRC

Previously on BB:
• ReMake: Bay Area electronics recycling event starts tomorrow!Link
• Earth Day: MAKE: and Alameda County Computer Resource Center recycling event Link

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  1. Damn thats really sad. I just made someones day today by giving him a refurbished computer now running Ubuntu 7.04. There are a lot of people who don’t have a computer and a lot of people who throw away perfectly good ones.

  2. The major problem with California is that every manufactured product causes cancer. Is there ever a product that isn’t required to have that statement on it sold in that state?

    They’re acting like the ACCRC is dumping PCB contaminated transformer oil into the local storm drains, maintaining a tire mosquito nesting farm or some of the more egregious things that happen in recycling? Did these people really inspect them or was there some sort of anti-Berkley Birkenstock axe to grind here?

  3. Question:

    Under this state code wouldn’t all of the server farms, computer parts warehouses and other collections of computers also have to throw out their equipment every year? Just a question…

    Also if it is the fact that the equipment is sitting unused; why not arrange the collection part as a tourist/museum? At the same time you could set the “pile” (what else to call it?) as a souvenir ‘shop’?

    Just a couple ideas of the top of my head…

  4. I hate to say it, but this is a downside to legislating environmentalism. All laws can be a two-edged sword, and unfortunately, California has a lot of those. Sharp ones.

    A lot of businesses and local governments now refuse to send their computers where they might be reused for fear of falling foul of environmental laws. They send them all, even p4’s, directly to a shredder. It’s shut a lot of small businesses out of the equation.

  5. As usual, it is the soft target that falls most certainly under the regulator’s scrutiny. See, big, efficiently polluting entities tend to have large legal departments. What regulator wants to risk status and job going up against one of those? Yet, the appearance of doing something must be projected… hence a natural tropism toward the soft target.

  6. DCULBERSON:

    I agree, to an extent. Ideally, we should make all companies handle their own products, and any purchaser of those companies handle the previously sold products, a la Cradle to Cradle design. Companies would start to be able to measure their value based on install base, because there would be raw materials in the wild that a future owner would get back. You’d design toxics out of products because nobody would be willing to sell what they couldn’t reuse. The key is to make garbage illegal for businesses to produce, and eventually for consumers. We just have to make things that can be upcycled (recycled indefinitely) or food for another process.

  7. I can’t help but wonder if their neighbors haven’t caused the problem. That site is quite near a rather large steel plant, which has come under a lot of scrutiny for its emissions.

  8. Arrgh. I used to be the Tech. Coordinator for a small school district. This was the only place we could afford to legally get rid of old computers, and when I took over we had an entire portable building crammed full of them. No one knew what to do with them. If the ACCRC goes away lots of people will lose a valuable resource, on both ends of the stream.

  9. Am I being naive? It’s okay; I probably am. At the end of Dwell Magazine’s his email address and suggest that “if you have an idea (or a complaint) about San Francisco’s recycling program, green spaces, or building regulations, [you should] contact him”.

    Separate levels of government/state agency vs. city government/whatever…but why not write “just in case”?

  10. Would it be over-simplyfing things to suggest opening another charity with another name at the same address and transfer all assets to the new business?

    This time next year, rinse, later and repeat …

  11. Utterly disturbing. I live in Brooklyn, NY and when I was discouraged by the quality of recyclers here I made it a point to pack boxes and ship stuff to the ACCRC. They really seem great and honest and I think they set an amazing example. Now this?

    Where are the inspectors for people who simply toss computers out on the street?

  12. This behavior sounds like some official throwing his “authority” around for something that even the most cursory look at the big picture is counter to the general public good. Hopefully if the public backlash is negative and loud enough, the persons with direct involvement will find themselves looking for another job soon.

  13. One suggestion for the collection would be to put it in a separate space, “donate” or “sell” it to a different company/corporation/non-profit set up specifically to be a museum.

  14. …This sudden switch by the regulatory commission doing the screwing, and the way it’s being handled brings this question to mind: are there any major used computer shops in the nearby area? Anyone with an owner devious enough to file complaints in an attempt to have the ACRCC shut down to eliminate competition?

    Food for thought, kids.

  15. Time to require a showing of peril, such as a probable mechanism for the toxics to get into the humans threatened before the regs kick in.
    Thaty would kill most of the ababtements right theere.

  16. Clfrn sn’t ntrstd n llwng nyn t kp n ld cmptr, thy wnt t shrddd s ppl wll hv t by nw ns. Mst nvrnmntl rgltns r shm, thy r smply thr s th stt cn xrcs mr cntrl vr th cnmy.

    nvrnmntlly, t’s mch clnr t jst kp ths ld cmptrs n shlf thn t rcycl t.

  17. I’m an inspector for a similar program in another state, and please don’t be so quick to assume the regulator is out to get someone. If California’s program is anything like ours, the inspector has little to no leeway in addressing a situation like this – if it’s a reg, there are procedures in place requiring enforcement in order to make sure that the rules are applied evenly and equally across everybody. The only place where any relaxation of the rule may be applied is at a level much higher than the inspector. If you don’t agree with the reg, and I can definitely see why you wouldn’t, then petition to get the rule changed. Having been part of the regulatory community, I would find it horrifying to allow field inspectors to determine who they would and wouldn’t enforce against.

  18. Hmm…this mostly seems to hinge on their name having the word “recycling” in it. Perhaps if they changed their name from ” Alameda County Computer Recycling Center” to ” Alameda County Computer Surplus Center” this would all go away?

  19. Environmental legislation is going after the small frys in this case. We have cars which pollute and get far worse fuel economy than they did 15 years ago. We are more dependent on oil than ever before. And when some company is trying to do their part to keep it green, they are always shut down. (This company is doing more than just keeping it green, they also were helping those who are less fortunate.)

    Another thing….if our government is going to go after companies like this, and tell us how important our environment is…..STFU until they shut down and /or halt the production of the coal based power plants, which do more harm to the environment in 1 month…than the whole state of California’s cars in 1 year.

  20. …has nothing to do with Big Brother or the Man….has to do with many outifts like this stock old equipment, which just gets older and older…and very frequently these outfits simply stop existing, usually because of lack of free staff…at which point the state is left with the problem of a hugh inventory of now toxic, old equipment….

    The inspector was doing the right thing for the environment. Period.

  21. I have to say this is an utter shame if this does go through! As a computer enthuaist and general geek I to collect old computer parts, after all as long as the damn thing still works I can use it for some sorta project :-) Especially as I’ve now got quite into Ubuntu (and the light weight sibling Xubuntu) I can usually make a usable machine out of most of the stuff I’ve got my hand on! I’ve recenlty managed to salvage 3 laptops (the “fastest” being a PIII 900Mhz)from various sites I’ve worked on as they had been consigned to the scrap heap!

    I really don’t understand why all parts over 1 year old have to be dumped, after all isn’t that a bit of an opposing view to the environmental efforts by making companies such as this create more waste!!

  22. This is so wrong! I would like to volunteer to help out any way we can. The guys over @ http://www.askTheAdmin.com are willing to help as well.

    Let us know if there are petitions we can work on, or any other tasks you can delegate. We are dedicated to help people fixing their computers for free and you are dedicated to breathing new life into dead machines.

    What a country where the good guys get bullied out of doing good!!!!

    Karl L. Gechlik of AskTheAdmin

  23. @AskTheAdmin – that sounds like a great idea. We would like to help as well. BTW: Asktheadmin.com is a very cool site!

  24. No good deed goes unpunished. The unfortunate fact is that some very environmentally-friendly operations are considered criminal activity. (I remember reading about a person who was charged with a crime for manufacturing his own fuel from corn). Hopefully this case will be escalated to a high enough authority so that some of the laws can be reviewed and possibly revised. Comment by Robert H. Goretsky of Hoboken, NJ.

  25. AMEN to death2web2’s post. No good deed EVER goes unpunished here in fascist America, where the worst, most egregious corporate Huns are immune from all laws. the anonymous ‘inspector’ post is obviously from a mindless drone incapable of complex thought or the ability to see in color, LOL. Perhaps they should apply for work at the TSA?

  26. You are in the right, they are in the wrong. Sometimes even with a large matter such as this, conscience informs you that it does in fact come down to something that simple. However, they are both wholly wrong and wholly in power, which means you are morally authorized to wholly deceive them. Draw up a full inventory as best you can, and make up the rest. Move things around; tape off sections of the floor; print and post clear and important-looking signs; spend a day reorganizing in such a fashion that it it obvious you have cleaned the place up–which will have the secondhand benefit of actually cleaning the place up. Take any items which might raise red flags–such as your legitimate memorabilia–and move them offsite or to a $300 shed (from any big-box hardware store) with “Marked for Recycling and Disposal” on it, and a posted timesheet labeling dates and times of recent disposal runs and projected ones. Take half an hour and draw up official waste-disposal schedules and plans, have the board of directors sign it (or at least yourself), using documents from the Internet as guides to making official-sounding language. This foolish inspector does not need to be fought or petitioned; he needs to believe he has made his mark. Allow him to believe it.

  27. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Turns out I actually had the organization’s name wrong in the original post. It’s the Alameda County Computer Resource Center.

  28. You look for ways to refurbish these components and possibly recombine them into functional computers that go out to areas and institutions that have difficulty obtaining computers.

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