Perhaps you remember the scene from Star Wars: A New Hope where Han, Luke, and Leia, and Chewbacca are all trapped in the garbage compactor on the Death Star. I always assumed that the ultimate end of garbage on the Death Star was jettisoning it into the ultimate landfill: space. Have you ever wondered why they would bother compacting the trash if they planned on releasing it into space? Another interesting question is how that slimy octopus monster survived being squeezed by the compressor and jettisoned. Even if it has incredibly sticky tentacles, you’d think being exposed to the vacuum of space isn’t too healthy. I’m no scientist, though, so let’s leave these questions be until George Lucas decides to make them irrelevant by producing awful sequels.
What put me onto this interesting line of Star Wars nostalgia was a visit to a place called The Hackery. The Hackery is a computer repair and recycling shop in East Vancouver. A bell hanging from the door jangled when I walked in, but nobody seemed to be around. The front-end of the shop is filled with vintage computers, more modern parts and monitors, and in the corner, a Lego version of the Death Star. While I stood contemplating the Death Star, Dave Repa, the founder of The Hackery, came in from out back.
Dave is practical and capable. He doesn’t seem to suffer from many illusions about the world of recycling (something he says is a gift from his years in the automotive recycling industry). The Hackery is a business and he operates it as efficiently as possible. At the same time, he’s the kind of guy who tracks down a special production line screwdriver that isn’t made any more in order make the job better for his employees. This sounds a bit like flattery, but I think he’d probably respond by saying it makes the job faster, too. Waste, in Dave’s mind, is like death and taxes: unavoidable.
As far as e-waste recycling goes, The Hackery accepts used electronic equipment from desktop computers to CRTs to laptops and cell phones. About the only electronics they don’t accept are photocopiers and smoke detectors. Dave harvests whatever reusable parts there are and recycles the rest. He charges no fee for the electronics people bring him and even provides free pickup.
The Hackery dismantles the computers they receive, harvesting them for reusable parts like power supplies, hard drives, keyboards, as well as many other items. Dave knows his stuff: in seconds he can place a value on parts that will sell.
While I was there, a customer came in looking for a new power supply for a computer that was made in 2006. Dave had just what was needed. The customer mentioned that he was interested in upgrading the computer so it could run Windows 7. Dave said it wasn’t going to work—too old. The customer was startled: Too old? It’s a 2006. Such is the market for electronics. Dave said there is pretty much no re-use market for the electronics of the early 2000s. Not old enough to be vintage, too old to be anything but obsolete.
It turns out that the majority of the recycling that The Hackery does is end-of-life.
Customers like the man with the computer from 2006 inevitably discover that it’s cheaper to buy a new(er) computer. They bring Dave their old computers and he and his employees dismantle them. What can’t be reused, they sort into various categories: steel, copper, circuit boards, and assorted plastics. The Hackery recycles certain materials with EPRA (which they don’t get any remuneration for), and sell materials for metal recovery to refineries. The most valuable material The Hackery harvests from computers are circuit boards.
Dave employs three people, although he’s had more employees when the economy was doing better. He sells vintage computers and parts all over the world and does repairs. Dave told me that he does think e-waste recycling is a viable industry, although he doesn’t think end-of-life recycling can be profitable unless you are big (Province-sanctioned programs like the EPRA and Encorp) or dirty (willing to export overseas knowing the e-waste will be dumped improperly or dismantled in awful conditions). For a company like The Hackery to survive in the current economy and regulatory environment, they have to rely on repairs and sales (vintage and bargain).
Dave isn’t going to get rich. But, at least in Vancouver, The Hackery is one of the few small-time businesses making it work ethically in the world of e-waste recycling.