The first sign of tough economic times at Computer Banc was the market for recycled circuit boards. Not that sales from recycled circuit boards were a big part of the organization’s $60,000 annual budget for refurbishing and donating computers to low-income families and social-service organizations. But the financial-market meltdown followed, corporate donors cut back, state grants disappeared or were harder to get, and both consumers and corporations started holding on to old systems a little longer. After an abrupt two-week shutdown in September, the organization is trying to regroup.
The first sign of tough economic times at Computer Banc was the market for recycled circuit boards.
“It just tanked. In April 2008, it was about $2.50 a pound, and by late summer, it was $1.10 a pound. Now, it’s recovered to about $1.50,” said Jess Hunter, a longtime volunteer technician for the group.
Not that sales from recycled circuit boards were a big part of the organization’s $60,000 annual budget for refurbishing and donating computers to low-income families and social-service organizations. But the financial-market meltdown followed, corporate donors cut back, state grants disappeared or were harder to get, and both consumers and corporations started holding on to old systems a little longer.
After an abrupt two-week shutdown in September — barely a month after its 10th anniversary breakfast — the organization is trying to regroup in the space it shares with Catholic Charities in Springfield.
The going is still tough, said Kevin Stevenson, president of the board of directors.
‘We realized we didn’t have enough money to continue, and we didn’t have enough computers,” Stevenson said of the September shutdown.
Government grants also are harder to come by, said Stevenson, who is director of strategic pricing for Springfield Electric Supply Co.
“In this economy, we found ourselves competing with basic-needs organizations who provide food and shelter,” said Stevenson.
However, a group of local companies, social-service organizations and labor unions donated enough money and computers to reopen Computer Banc’s doors. Volunteers are back at the facility Tuesday evenings and on the first and third Saturday of each month, where they disassemble and reassemble donated equipment. Donated computers are once again going out the door.
A part-time executive director and customer-service representative also have been hired, said Stevenson.
The organization has enough money and computers on hand to get through the remainder of the year, “but we could be right back where we were very quickly. … We could be right back in that boat in January.”
Donated computers generally go to families with school-age children who are eligible for reduced-price school lunches, said executive director David Fowler. Computers also are donated to adults referred by social-service agencies, other not-for-profit organizations and people with special needs.
Fowler said the organization has been in discussions with the Springfield School District on ways to better reach eligible families.
“We know that in Sangamon County, there are 1,300 grandparents raising their grandchildren, based on census data, and that’s just one example of the need,” said Fowler, who added that demand continues to exceed supply.
“Usually, all of our computers have been allocated out by the fifth of the month, and we take calls the rest of the month,” said Fowler, who also teaches business marketing at Robert Morris College in Springfield.
The organization has similar partnerships with school districts in Decatur, Mount Vernon and Quincy among other communities, but Fowler said one of the guidelines is that computers remain in the communities where the equipment was donated.
He said the primary of goal of school partnerships is to make sure students, especially at-risk students, have the computer skills needed in the work force.
“There aren’t too many jobs out there today that don’t require computer skills. That’s why they call it ‘the digital divide,’” said Fowler.
One of the ironies of the economic-related shutdown is that the economy also was driving up demand, according to figures from the Computer Banc. Hunter said volunteer technicians had sent 350 computers out the door through the end of September this year, compared to 272 at the same time in 2008.
“If we can get them in here, we’ll get ’em out,” said Hunter, who added that both consumers and companies are hanging on to computers longer in this economy. “They were keeping them for three or four years. Now, they’re keeping them four or four-and-a-half.”
As part of refurbishing, hard drives are wiped clean, though some larger corporate donors erase the drives before equipment is donated.
After reopening, the board of directors also launched a campaign to raise about $100,000 for 2010 operations.
Stevenson said the campaign is off to a good start, but the economy remains a challenge.
“We have to be realistic. We’d be happy if that $100,000 comes in through the year in 2010,” he said.
Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536 or email@example.com.
* Started in 1999 in the basement of First Presbyterian Church of Springfield. Moved to 1023 E. Washington St. in 2002, the same year not-for-profit status was obtained.
* Refurbishes donated computers — minimum Pentium 4 (1.2 GHz) or newer, with 17- to 19-inch monitors — for low-income families with school-age children, other charitable organizations, and adults with special needs or who are referred by another social-service agency. A fee may apply, based on income. Donations are first-come, first-served.
* Has donated 2,210 computers since its founding, primarily in Sangamon County but also in parts of central and southern Illinois.
*More information: www.computer.info or call (217) 528-9506 (office hours are limited).
Computers, electronics to be banned from landfills
Illinois’ law on disposal of electronic equipment, including computers, is about to get tougher in preparation for a ban on such items from landfills scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2012.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation in the fall of last year that requires manufacturers of computers sold in Illinois to set up computer recycling and collection programs as of Jan. 1, 2010.
“There’s a two-year period when we hope these recycling programs will take root and become more prevalent before the ban takes effect,” said Dave Walters, manager of the waste-reduction compliance section at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Walters said the goal of the Illinois law is to divert at least 31 million pounds of electronic waste from landfills in the first year.
“The goals will increase depending the progress manufacturers make,” he said.
Manufacturers are required to register the programs with the state, and each has recycling goals that gradually increase until the ban takes effect.
“All of the major manufacturers have registered,” said Walters.
A U.S. General Services Administration report estimated in 2005 that more than 100 million computers, monitors and televisions become obsolete each year.
The report concluded that federal regulations were inadequate in keeping toxic materials from discarded electronics out of landfills.
Walters said Illinois is one of about 15 states to enact laws intended to keep electronic waste out of landfills.