New life for old laptops or just garbage disposal?

I’m torn.
A few times I’ve been asked by the director at GDC to evaluate some equipment that an organization is supposedly donating for just the cost of inspection and shipping.
The more I receive these requests to evaluate these machines, the more I think this is a great big scam.

Joel, the director, usually forwards messages like this to me and asks, “Bill, what do you think of these machines?”

From: [redacted]
Date: January 29, 2010 3:13:08 AM CST
To: [redacted]
Subject: Laptop computers from [redacted]

Good morning Joel … the five laptops mentioned below are no longer available; however, last week we received 12 Dell LATITUDE 620 laptops that [redacted] Laptop Gurus worked on earlier this week. Initial indications are that most are in good working order, but we found a couple where head phones or an external speaker is required to hear the sounds properly. We have order additional memory, DVD / CD-RW combo drives, and 60 GB hard drives for them. My understanding is that the WIFI cards that were purchased for the previous laptops will work in these. In addition we will need to replace some of the batteries.
So when we get them setup, they will be running at 2.16 GHz, have 1 GB of RAM (which can be upgraded to 2 GB) have a 60 GB hard drive, DVD player / CD Writer, WIFI, good battery and AC Adapter with Windows XP installed. We are looking to get $245 a unit. Since many who have acquired laptops from us have asked for carrying cases, we recently found a supplier where we can purchased carrying cases for laptops. If this is of interest let me know, I believe the ones we are looking at will run around $25 a piece.
Accordingly, if you are interested, please let me know soon. I anticipate the laptops being ready by the end of next week.
[signature redacted]

These laptops are most likely from corporations that have either donated or disposed of old equipment. They’re probably four to five years old already. We’ve received them in several states of “used” condition ranging from pretty scratched up to duct taped. They still have OEM Windows XP Home or Professional stickers on the bottom most of the time. Nothing I can really re-install if needed.
In my opinion, these machines may have up to a year of usefulness before they break down and get buried in someone’s garage a few years before heading to a landfill.
Joel’s explanation for donating these laptops is compelling. Simply put, the people receiving them can get some use out of them. He plans to hand them over to other NGOs for grant writing. Most grant distributors won’t take grant proposals in writing but instead require everything to be in electronic form. “Even one month’s use,” he says, “is enough time to write a few needed proposals asking for money.”
Another time, Joel asked me to evaluate a U.K. organization’s offer to ship 50 desktop computers each with “a minimum of 256MB”, a keyboard, mouse and CRT monitor to Kenya. By the time they included installing an operating system, like Windows XP or Linux along with applications like OpenOffice and shipping costs, the price per machine was about $180.00.
After careful consideration of the proposal, I replied to Joel with this at the end of a message:

My personal and very prejudiced opinion:

These are computers that no one is willing to buy. The cost to dispose of them as “charitable donations” is appealing because they become a tax deduction and this also passes along the cost and hassle of disposal to someone else.
What will happen to these machines when they fail? They will be thrown into a landfill and not properly recycled. The mercury, lead and other pollutants will seep into the soil and cause environmental problems later.
I see this organization and others like it as a front for cheap disposal of hazardous substances in foreign countries that will have no rebuke.
* A true charitable donation would be to get fewer machines that will last *
* longer and it would also include a commitment for removal and proper *
* disposal of an old non-working computer for every new computer placed. *
At minimum, if you are going to donate these 50 computers then locate 50 non-working systems and pay for their proper disposal (recycled, not a landfill). This is just as important as donating a computer.

That’s been my recommendation since writing that response to Joel. For everyone one in, take one out—properly, with the environment in mind. I don’t want to see any country become our dumping ground.

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