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Youth Taking Action: Making a Difference in E-Waste

Ashoka's Youth Venturer and 2007 Brower Youth Award winner Alex Lin, 15, started Westerly Innovations Network (WIN), an e-waste recycling project that has refurbished and donated hundreds of computers to people at home and abroad, while also influencing Rhode Island's state legislation on e-waste disposal. Alex continues to provide refurbished computers to those in need, raise awareness of the harmful effects of e-waste, and has recently started to mentor and coach a team, Turning Grease into Fuel (T.G.I.F), which converts used cooking oil from restaurants and households into biodiesel to help heat shelters. We spoke with Alex about e-waste, how to influence legislation, and his plans for the future.

The harmful effects of electronic waste are not commonly known or misunderstood, what are the most important things that you want everyone to know about electronic waste?
Electronic waste cannot be treated as ‘normal' waste. Unlike what someone would put on the curb, electronics contain chemicals that require disposal as ‘hazardous waste.' These chemicals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, pose no threat while being used. However, when dumped into landfills or otherwise improperly disposed of, these chemicals have the opportunity to seep into the environment and cause environmental damage as well as damage to humans. For example, lead causes developmental damage in the brain, especially to children. Also, polybrominated diphenylethers, which are present in the plastic casings, are known to cause various types of cancer.
Instead, consumer electronics should be either recycled or reused. Reusing is the best option; it is seven times more efficient than recycling. Reuse prolongs the life of electronics without expending the resources needed to break it down into raw materials. Responsible recycling is the next best choice. However, some ‘recycling' companies are fraudulent in that they do not actually recycle the products; they just export them to be dumped. The best way to find a ‘responsible' recycler is to look at here. Reusing and recycling are the two ways that you should always dispose of your electronics.

You were able to influence state legislation in your home state of Rhode Island. What kind of legislation passed and how can each of us make our voice heard to influence our state and national leaders to enact more environmentally sustainable laws?
The legislation that was enacted in my state put a general ban on the dumping of e-waste. In conjunction with the recycling program established by my project, this ensured that almost all electronics in Rhode Island were either being reused or recycled. Later, a manufacturer responsibility law was passed, requiring that all electronics manufacturers pay a portion of the cost (based on market share) of recycling the electronics.
To best make your voice heard, raise awareness and gather a following of people. Also, signing petitions for a particular piece of legislation can show public support for a bill or law. In addition, at both the state and town levels, making presentations to the lawmakers can be an effective strategy. This makes the legislators themselves more aware of the problem, which will make them more likely to pass the bill. Once they know about the environmental devastation and the contamination of land and water supplies, they will be more inclined to pass a law.

You've accomplished great things with your e-waste initiative, now as a mentor and coach for T.G.I.F. what are the most import lessons and skills that you want to teach others?
In my opinion, the most important lesson that I've learned through my ventures is to coordinate different parties towards the same goal. There is no reason to do something yourself when there are already established organizations that are dedicated to doing a certain task. However, it is key to have these organizations work together to achieve a greater goal. For example, for the TGIF project, the efforts residents, restaurants, grease collectors, biodiesel refiners, and aid distributors were woven together into a self-sufficient program to refine biodiesel for heating assistance.
In following with this, the next skill would be coordinating people. On your own venture team, like in the larger community, people should be doing what they do best. This makes for the most efficient program.
Another skill that would greatly help to create a successful venture is public speaking. ‘Selling' your project and raising awareness will be key to rallying a group of people to support you, which is crucial for expanding the venture and creating long-term action.
In relation to the previous skill, one lesson I've learned is to think sustainably. When working with businesses, some may be worried about what happens if and when your venture ceases to exist. Also, sustainability makes for lasting impact, which should be a goal for any venture.
Finally, set goals, schedules and deadlines. It's easy to get off track without a guide dictating the next step towards the final goal. With some sort of outline, you know exactly what to do.

Monitoring and evaluation are important processes to include in any successful project, how do you measure your projects' successes? What lessons have you learned along the way?
I can measure my projects' successes by the numbers. Most of what I do can be quantified; the amount of electronics recycled, the amount of biodiesel produced, the number of computers donated can all be simplified to numbers. In addition, more intangible accomplishments can also be calculated, such as the number of people I've informed about the problem, a center that was set up, a system established, a bill passed. Each has a different significance in the larger picture.
Out of the many things I have learned from my work, Murphy's Law is one that comes to mind. It states that ‘anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.' With good planning, hopefully most events run smoothly, but you always have to prepare for multiple aspects of a particular event failing spectacularly. Sometimes, Plan Fs are necessary, not just a Plan B. In addition to that, I feel that improvisation is an integral skill to have. In the middle of a project or event, thinking on your feet to find a solution at hand can turn a mediocre event into a roaring success.

What are your plans and hopes for your projects going forward?

As of right now, I am seeking to expand both of my projects as much as possible. For my e-waste project, I look to continue to send computer centers to areas around the world to raise awareness about the e-waste problem. However, my main focus will be with the TGIF project. I hope to help the team move their project to nearby towns, which they have already started to do.
Above all, I hope to turn both my projects into modules that can be replicated anywhere. Almost like ventures-in-a-box, for younger students who would like to create their own ventures but do not know where to start. This way, I can maximize impact of a specific project while at the same time inspiring others into action and giving them valuable experience working with their communities.
Alex Lin, Teenage Activist
Salvatore Cardoni |
He's overseen the recycling of 300,000 pounds of e-waste. He's successfully lobbied the Rhode Island state legislature to ban the dumping of electronics. He's used refurbished computers to create media centers in developing countries like Cameroon and Sri Lanka to foster computer literacy.
He’s Alex Lin and he’s just 16 years old.
“I don’t see anything uncommon in it,” says Lin, a high school senior from Westerly, Rhode Island. “My friends and I have been doing this since fifth grade. It’s become part of our lifestyle.”
Lin’s catalytic moment came in 2004 when he chanced upon a Wall Street Journal article. “It first alerted me to the e-waste problem, and warned of an e-waste tsunami to come.”
E-waste, or electronics garbage, is the fastest growing section of the U.S. trash stream. In 2007, Americans discarded more than 112,000 computers daily, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Even worse, just 18 percent of discarded televisions and computer products were collected for recycling.
While there is no federal law banning e-waste, 20 states have passed legislation mandating statewide e-waste recycling.
If only the states with e-waste laws in their 2010 legislative pipeline—Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Utah, to name a few—had an Alex Lin at their disposal.

The Rise of E-Waste, the Birth of Team WIN
Almost all electronic devices contain varying amounts of hazardous chemicals and heavy metals—lead, mercury, and cadmium being among the most deadly to the human body.
“When improperly disposed of—i.e. dumping, burning, etc.—these chemicals can seep into the surrounding environment, harming humans, crops, and ecosystems," says Lin. "With the advent of the computer in the 1970s, electronics use has increased exponentially, bringing with it ever-increasing amounts of waste. In the majority of the world, this waste is improperly disposed of, resulting in untold damage to the environment.”
Reduce, reuse, and recycle. These are the so-called 3Rs of eco-friendly behavior. To start, Lin and his student-led community service team, Westerly Innovations Network (WIN), concentrated their efforts on recycling.
“We worked with Metech International to hold an e-waste recycling drive that collected over 21,000 pounds of electronics,” says Lin. With assistance from a private recycling company and the municipal government, they established a permanent receptacle that collects up to 5,000 pounds of e-waste per month, and more than 300,000 pounds to date.
However, once Lin and his team discovered that reusing computers was much more efficient than recycling, they decided to create a computer-refurbishing program. “To make this sustainable,” says Lin, “we worked with the Westerly School System to incorporate computer refurbishing into the A+ Certified Computer Repair class's curriculum.”
More than 300 refurbished computers were donated to low-income students without home computer access. “It was an eye-opening experience,” says Jeff Brodie, 16, of the moment when he, Lin, and other WIN teammates walked into one Westerly residence to set up a computer. “The kids were running around very excited.”

A Field Trip to the State House
Mission accomplished, right? Not quite. Lin’s e-waste eradication efforts were only ratcheting up. “We recognized that the true sustainability of our project lay in legislation,” says Lin. Through research, they learned of an e-waste bill that had been in the works for years in Rhode Island.
Seizing on the opportunity to translate their local success into the language of a state law, Lin and his team met with Arthur Handy, the state representative sponsoring the bill, and testified before both the House and Senate Environmental Committees. “He came across very well,” recalls Handy of Lin's presentation as an 11-year-old. “They were clearly well prepared and had clearly thought the issue through.”
The bill, however, did not pass. “We were all disappointed; we had put in all this time and they didn’t listen to us,” says Brodie.
“Looking back at what might have gone wrong, we came to realize that bill was too complicated,” says Lin. To combat this, they drafted a local ordinance encompassing all the positive points of the law. “It was simple: ban e-waste dumping,” says Lin.
This go-round, Lin and his WIN Team sent out thousands of fliers, made radio announcements, wrote articles for local newspapers, and made presentations in front of both student and town council audiences. Handy says he was impressed that Lin had not given up after the failure of the first bill. “It showed that it was not just a school project," says Handy. "It showed that it was something he had a passion for."
Local media got wind of the story and helped spread the word to more than a million people in the greater Westerly area. “The biggest challenge against progress is simply awareness,” says Lin. “When my team and I first surveyed our town, only 12 percent of the residents knew how to properly dispose of e-waste.”

The Law of the Land
Fast-forward to October 28, 2005—the day local officials in Westerly unanimously passed Lin’s e-waste ordinance. “It was then proposed as a bill to the State House,” says Lin. “This time we brought a petition with 400 signatures and again testified before both the House and Senate. Bill H7789 passed on July 6, 2006.”
It is now illegal to dump electronics in Rhode Island. Proudest of all might be Lin’s father, Jason, 47, an engineer who served as the team’s mentor. “It was a tremendous amount of work,” he says with a chuckle.
The bill set the stage for more comprehensive legislation that passed in 2008. “Now Rhode Island requires manufacturers to take back their computers and televisions, and to pay for the collection and recycling of them,” says Sheila Dormody, the Rhode Island Director for Clean Water Action, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that worked with Lin.
The youth activist awards were piling up nearly as fast as the heaping piles of e-waste were vanishing. In 2005 alone, WIN won first place at the Community Problem Solving Competition, third place at the Volvo Adventure Competition sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program, and a gold prize at the Christopher Columbus Awards.

Scaling Up
As Lin crisscrossed the country and the globe attending these award ceremonies—from Lexington, Kentucky, to Gothenburg, Sweden; from Orlando, Florida, to Aichi, Japan—he came up with the idea for WIN’s next e-waste endeavor.
“Cooperating with satellite WIN Teams that we established through connections made at conferences and competitions, we have worked to create media centers in areas in need of information technology,” says Lin.
And like that, the WIN Network went global.
“To date, we have sent out over 60 computers in seven media centers to countries such as Cameroon, Kenya, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines," says Lin.
Lin hopes that these media centers will become a model for the sustainable and responsible reuse of computers between nations.
He also wants to "raise awareness of e-waste in developing countries so that they will be able to create the infrastructure to handle e-waste before it becomes a problem.”
According to a report issued by the United Nations Environment Programme last month, the amount of e-waste in developing nations is expected to greatly increase. By 2020, the report says, e-waste from old computers in South Africa and China will have jumped 200 percent to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500 percent in India.
For all of his success, Lin’s most far-reaching legacy might prove to be the one closest to home. Like his father did for the original team, Lin has begun mentoring his 11-year-old sister Cassandra’s Junior WIN Team: shepherding their efforts to recycle used cooking oil into biodiesel that will help heat homeless shelters.

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