Last Wednesday morning, I was standing in the yard of the Computers for Schools warehouse, just off Lewes Boulevard, taking a slightly melancholy solace in small chunks of computer junk stuck in the exposed but still frozen ground.
Those small chunks of computer plastic, and bits of rubber cable, were not particularly esthetic, but they were a whole lot better than the heap of monitors, computer towers, printers and other junk electronics that had been on this ground this time a year ago.
Come spring thaw, a few passes with a BobCat will scoop up and get rid of these last bits of what was formerly a sizable stack of trouble.
I could take further comfort in the fact that the serried rows of stacked-and-wrapped electronic waste that had lined the fence of this yard this time last April were now gone, too, with only a few straggler stacks waiting for a final truckload out.
Cleaning up the mess that had beset the Computers for Schools operation for almost two years is not an accomplishment I can claim for myself – most of the praise goes to the initiative shown by YTG’s Environment and Highways and Public Works departments, and by Raven Recycling, which did most of the legwork on the cleanup – but I felt good about being at least an early catalyst in getting the effort started.
By the time it is over – when the last freight truck pulls out of the yard this spring or summer – more than a dozen truckloads of junk will have been hauled away down south for ecologically responsible recycling.
Reflecting on that accomplishment made me feel good, that morning, though the fact that the Computers for Schools warehouse was temporarily closed and locked nagged at me.
I am currently winding down my term as the manager of the Computers for Schools program, and the society I worked for in that capacity – the Yukon Entrepreneurship Centre Society – is also closing out operations.
My ambition to effect a seamless switch-over from the Entrepreneurship Centre to an inheritor organization did not work out quite as well as the e-waste removal plan had done.
The closure of the Computers for Schools warehouse is indeed temporary, though, and I have tremendous confidence in the organization currently negotiating with the federal government to take over the program.
It is not my business here to intrude on those talks by saying who the proponent is, and when the deal may be worked out; it is enough to alert you that for the moment you are going to get a number-out-of-service message when you call, or a locked door when you visit, at the warehouse
But some very competent people are working on the problem – though not me, anymore.
It is a natural impulse, when you are leaving a job, to weigh up what you did well in it, what not so well, and what you accomplished or failed to accomplish.
In the case of my term with Computers for Schools, I would give myself good marks for having kept my head when the crisis of the accumulating computer junk first arose, and for bringing the human and financial resources together to attack the problem; on the other hand, I wish I had recognized the scope of the problem sooner, and moved to keep it from getting quite so large.
With the help of the YTG departments mentioned earlier, and with outstanding co-operation from Raven Recycling, I managed to help clear away the mess, and, I hope, did something to increase public awareness that there is a serious and on-going e-waste management problem in the Yukon.
On the other hand, sadly, the energy expended on dealing with the e-waste problem was energy that was diverted from what is properly the mission of Computers for Schools: getting computers into the hands of people and organizations who have educational or training needs, and limited budgets to meet those needs.
That work was not ignored under my watch, but not carried out as vigorously as I wish it had been, and hope it will be by the inheriting organization.
Computers for Schools is a social justice initiative, not an ecological one. It is about empowering the potentially disempowered in the computer age.
In so far as it involves extending the life cycle of computers through refurbishment and reuse, it fits into the spectrum of an ecological agenda, but that is not what should be its primary focus.
Organizations do best when they try to do just one thing well, and for my money Computers for Schools should in future focus intently on fulfilling its social mission.
It has to be about refurbishment and reuse, not about recycling.
My hope for the future is that a plan can be found that will allow the manager who follows me to focus on that mission, without having to worry so much about the ecological one.
I also hope that nobody assumes that the clean-up in the Computers for Schools warehouse yard means that the Yukon has cleaned up its e-waste problem.
It hasn’t, and it still needs to, or another pile is going to appear somewhere else, in pretty short order.
Rick Steele is a technology
junkie who lives in Whitehorse.