Youth is Not E-wasted on the Young

It's not every day that a fifth grader reads and article in The Wall Street Journal and decides to take action. But Alex Lin was very surprised to learn about the environmental hazards of discarded computers and decided to do something about it, right in his own town.

Alex’s e-waste initiative in Westerly, RI puts a twist on the problem of e-waste. It is solving two problems at once, by collecting local residents’ discarded computers, refurbishing them, and giving them away to families unable to afford new electronic equipment.

“It was something we could do to make a measurable difference right in our own community,” he says.

Alex is now 15 and his program, Westerly Innovations Network (WIN) has been going strong since 2002.

In Westerly, as in many communities, it wasn’t the case that people were callously tossing hazardous items into the trash. When Alex and his friends did a local survey they discovered only about 13 percent of the people in town knew anything about the dangers of e-waste.

In addition, in the quest for the most up-to-date and coolest devices, many people were improperly disposing of equipment that was almost as good as new. Toxic components of computers such as cadmium and lead can leech into the soil and migrate into drinking water, posing environmental and health risks.

With a little technical know-how and some elbow grease, Alex and his friends knew they could refurbish many of these unwanted computers and give them to people who needed them. They formed the Westerly Innovations Network (WIN).

The group had learned that recycling computers is much less efficient than making minor repairs. They got a local data collection company that Alex’s father had contacts with, to provide free training in computer repair. And armed with information from their survey, they had a list of people who wanted a computer but could not afford one.

“By refurbishing them and giving them to people who need them we could first of all prevent them from just getting dumped and second of all save resources. Plus we could give people something they really needed.”

Alex’s basement is the repair lab and his parents’ garage is like the warehouse, practically filled to the top with old monitors, hard drives, and keyboards. To date, WIN has given away more than 300 rescued computers. The group was a finalist in the Changemakers Staples Youth Social Entrepreneur competition in 2008. Now the group has branched out to provide their product to communities in need in Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Cameroon and is changing their name to the World Wide Innovations Network.

Still, it’s at the local level that they feel their impact most keenly. Alex says anyone can do what he’s done.

“This kind of system can spread to pretty much any town in the US,” he said. And he’s helping make that happen. WIN has brochures and guidelines for other communities interested in starting their own e-waste refurbishing program. The town of Bloomington, CT, for example, is already following in WIN’s footsteps, with Alex and his friends offering advice and mentorship.

“It feels really good to be able to inspire people to do more in their own communities,” he says, ”just by seeing what we’re doing.”

Check out this great video of Alex and the rest of the WIN team.

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