Free Geek, One-Stop Shop: Ethical E-Waste Recycler, Open Source Software Provider & Technology Help Centre

Adrian Wong is the Production Coordinator at Free Geek, a technology-oriented community centre near Strathcona in East Vancouver. Among other responsibilities, Adrian oversees the VCN intern placement and volunteers, which are important to Free Geek’s operations.


Adrian shared some of his background knowledge when I came for a visit in January, 2015. To the best of his knowledge, Free Geek is the only community technology centre in the Lower Mainland. “The first Free Geek started in Portland, Oregon, in 2000,” Adrian recalls.

“We’re the second one, and we started in 2006.” There are now Free Geeks in other cities, including Toronto and Chicago. While Free Geeks share ideas and philosophy, they are not a franchise. Beyond the name, logo, and mission they are not responsible to each other and are not required to follow a common code.

Free Geek’s 4-Part Mission

1. Ethical E-Waste Recycling

Free Geek receives an abundance of e-waste (electronic waste containing a circuit or wire) and ensures the waste is recycled locally and ethically. “Most e-waste ends up in the landfill,” Adrian explains, “and of the small fraction that is recycled, the vast majority is shipped overseas, especially to places like China.” According to Adrian, Wikipedia, and virtually any other source in a quick Google search, Guiyu in Guangdong Province, China, is considered the e-waste capital of the world.

In many settings overseas, e-waste is broken down Free Geek, One-Stop Shop: Ethical E-Waste Recycler, Open Source Software Provider & Technology Help Centre and recycled unethically, including employing poor worker conditions. Much of the e-waste contains valuable materials such as copper or gold that can be recovered and resold or reused. “The materials are melted down,” Adrian says, “a process which can be hazardous if done improperly. The simplest way is to throw materials into a fire and have the other less valuable materials burned off.

Workers can inhale those fumes, which can be very detrimental to their health. If safe guards aren’t taken, toxic materials can be released into the environment, including the drinking water.” As a small enterprise, Free Geek does not engage in smelting (using industrial equipment to melt down materials in a furnace); only physically dismantling and separating materials are permitted in breaking down e-waste. Volunteers and staff members use screwdrivers to pry materials apart, unlatch materials, and recycle wires by sending them to organizations in B.C and Washington. These organizations have been vetted by Free Geek to recycle locally and do not send materials overseas.

2. Access to Technology

The access to technology section of Free Geek’s mission includes adoption boxes, a hardware grant program, and a small thrift store comprised of refurbished equipment. Adoption boxes are computers that Free Geek’s volunteers can earn after volunteering for 24 hours. The hardware grant program involves requests for free hardware, which Adrian manages, distributing hardware to well-deserving applicants.

Free Geek Vancouver offers community-based learning opportunities during Open Help Night, a weekly drop-in that runs every Wednesday from 6-9pm and supplies technological aid to those who need it. Community members can sign up to have their hardware, software and open source questions answered free of charge on a first-come, first-serve basis. All Free Geek volunteers are technically efficient and have been vetted by staff. 

3. Free and Open Source Software

Free Geek provides Linux open source software at no cost to members of the community. This software is available through download or via hard copy disk at Free Geek. Free Geek installs Linux software on the desktop and laptop computers that they give away or sell, and try to use the free and open source versions of their scanning and printing software. For example, Libra Office is an open source equivalent of Microsoft Office that Free Geek uses for all of their in-house word processing and spreadsheet production.

Open Source Software: A CrashCourse with Adrian

“Free and open source means it’s community-driven,” Adrian says. “It’s not in the hands of one corporate entity. It’s for the people, by the people.” Open source software is an open license framework or model by which software can be created. The code for open source software is freely available and accessible for anyone to modify and redistribute, while proprietary commercial software such as Windows and Mac are expensive and do not allow clients to alter the code. While the open source model can be applied to a number of goods, software is a primary product of open sourcing because it is very easy for the world at large to participate in open source software. Anyone with access to a computer, internet, and a bit a motivation can become part of the open source software community.

4. Consensus-Based Organization

Much like Vancouver Co-op Radio, Free Geek operates on a consensus-based model whereby they make decisions as a group. As a membership-based organization, Free Geek makes operational decisions–such as affiliating with another organization– by involving all staff members or even the entire membership if the issue concerns the member. “If any one person disagrees with the proposal they can block the decision,” Adrian explains. “At all times we try to make decisions as a group where we all agree. This contrasts a strict democracy where the majority rules.” Adrian emphasizes that this principle can make the decision-making process quite time consuming, but is a value they believe in and make every effort to follow.

Free Geek: A Volunteer-Based Organization

With guidance and instruction from the staff members (coordinators, managers and supervisors), Free Geek volunteers help with operational activities such as dismantling, testing computer hardware, building and refurbishing computers, cutting wires, and sorting circuit boards and raw materials. Adrian notes that that Free Geek has a high volunteer turnover rate, and the VCN internship program helps provide consistency and relatively long-term commitment.

Free Geek’s Participation in the VCN’s Internship Program

Free Geek screens and interviews internship candidates to identify new additions suitable for the team. Adrian values work experience and technical knowledge more than formal education that may not translate into working knowledge. Even if the applicant does not have the formal credentials that reflect their expertise, Adrian looks for candidates who have taken the great “pains and efforts” to teach themselves how to use technology by tinkering at home. This home learning often includes building computers and experimenting with software.

[Feature image courtesy of Free Geek]