Rewind: How to recycle those old computers in your attic

Charles Brennick of InterConnection with one of the group's $149 refurbished laptops for low-income households.

Our guest last weekend on the GeekWire podcast was Charles Brennick, the founder and director of InterConnection.  The nonprofit, located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, refurbishes donated PCs and distributes them around the world to humanitarian organizations, nonprofits and other deserving groups.

We had a fun time catching up with Charles, joking about all of the used computers we could personally donate. We were also intrigued with some of the volunteer programs going on at InterConnection.

If you missed the show, or just prefer text, continue reading for selected excerpts from his comments.

Bishop: What does InterConnection do and what happens to those PCs once people drop them off?

Brennick: “Basically, the mission of the organization is to provide technology to underserved communities. Primarily what we do is provide refurbished computers to these groups. We take in old computers, from individuals and businesses and wipe the hard drive, sometimes reinstall the operating system, clean them, test and upgrade and then we distribute them to a variety of groups — low income people, non-profits, schools, community organizations, basically anybody in need of technology.”

Cook: One of my fears … is the hard drive. I am so fearful about taking something in and recycling it someplace. How do you reassure consumers that it is OK to bring in a computer and drop it off?

Computer repair area at InterConnection

Brennick: “You are not the only one with those concerns. That’s probably one of the biggest hurdles for donating and getting equipment is we have to make sure that people are really comfortable with our data management practices and security. And we have different procedures, software for wiping and destroying data. For equipment that we are going to re-use, we have special software that we have developed that basically goes through at a low level and wipes the hard drive three times, and we also have ways to mechanical destroy the drive.”

Cook/Bishop: Is it effective to take a hammer to a hard drive?

Brennick: “You guys should know that platters on a hard drive have to spin, and so if you are driving a nail through the drive, the platters can’t spin…. We have the mechanical destruction because there are a lot of businesses out there that, even though we tell them that we are going to wipe the drive, they still want to see it destroyed, so we can bring this machine on site and destroy the hard drives in front of the people. The visual is pretty impressive. It is this press, and it just drives right through the drive. It looks pretty cool… Yeah, so data security is really important.”


Bishop: Does it matter to you if I bring it back to you in the original computer boxes?

Brennick. No. (Laughs). In fact, that is one of things you should probably avoid. All we want is the computer, so the manuals and the styrofoam that came with it 20 years ago is stuff you can honestly throw away, or recycle even better.”

Cook: You are located next door to the North Seattle transfer station. Do you get a lot of business from people who go there and try to drop off their old computers?

Brennick: “Yes. Actually, we have a pretty good relationship with those guys, so I bring them doughnuts every now and then to let them know that we are the place where you can take computers and so forth and get them properly recycled. The dump does not accept computers, it doesn’t accept TVs, does not accept monitors, so we are the closest option for the North Seattle transfer station.”

Cook: Is it free to drop off the computers?

Brennick: “It is totally free, everything is free.”

Bishop: You got into this because of a bigger vision of the impact of these computers. Tell that story?

Brennick: “I never thought I’d be a junk collector. (Laughs). Yeah, I started the organization back in 99, and my motivation, I guess, was to help non-profits and NGOs gain access to technology. So, when I originally started the organization, it wasn’t even about computers. It was about providing Web sites and tech support to some of these non-profits and NGOs…. When I started the organization, it was like, OK, the Internet and technology is really powerful. It is a strong tool that these organizations can use to communicate and gain resources, so the organization helped them and donated Web sites to them, but obviously they can’t use Web sites if they don’t have computers.”

Bishop: Where do you get the computers from — businesses or individuals — and how many do you get in an average month?

Brennick: “We get them from both, actually, individuals and businesses. It’s about 50-50. Like you said, we are located in Fremont, 3415 Stone Way, and we have a drop facility, so we have loading docks, and people can just back in and drop off their computers. We also do pick-ups for businesses, so if you are a business that has at least three computers, we will actually go out and pick up the equipment for free anywhere in King County.”

Bishop: How many computers do you get?

Brennick: “We get at least 1,000 a month, and so that might sound like a big number. But the fact is maybe half, if we are lucky, are reusable. We get everything. We don’t turn anything away. We accept it all for free. People are bringing in their old Tandy or Commodore, I mean really old equipment, and obviously that stuff is not re-usable.”

Bishop: You have programs that distribute computers around the world to non-profits, but you have a laptop that you give out  to low income people. Tell us about that? 

Brennick: “We have a tech skills training program where anyone who comes in for 30 hours and helps us out can get a free computer. So, it is an extremely popular program because it is a way to get free skills and a free computer. So we get about 10 new volunteers a week, and we’ve trained over 4,000 people over the course of our life time I guess. It is a great way to get skills…. And if you don’t have time to volunteer, we sell a laptop. It is a great deal. It is $149, but it is like a $500 value because we are installing Windows 7, we’re also installing Office, we’re installing anti-virus, some learning software and we are doing this back-up partition that you can use in case there are any problems with the laptop.”

Full show here: