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This story was originally published by Pioneer PBS.
The challenge is really two sides of the same computer disc. On one side, there’s been an identified need for affordable computers in Lyon County. On the other side, Lyon County as a landfill county is trying to figure out how to lessen its e-waste footprint.
Lyon County, located in rural southwest Minnesota, has a population of 25,269, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We’ve been diverting electronic waste from landfilling for many years,” said Roger Schroeder, the environmental administrator for Lyon County. Electronic waste or e-waste includes things like VCRs, DVDs, TVs, and computers. Schroeder said that the county has been a collection point for e-waste since 2009 because, in 2006, Minnesota law required that anything with a cathode-ray tube, like televisions and computer monitors, be recycled.
Years ago, Schroeder was approached by an individual who wanted to start an e-waste recycling program, but thought that Lyon County wasn’t in a position to do that. Obstacles like personal data and program costs were first on Schroeder’s mind. “And that’s where the county board stepped in, and commissioner Sanow said, you know, this is maybe not something that’s going to make us money, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Schroeder.
“I thought, what if we fixed up the old computers and gave it to the people that had a need for their kids,” said Lyon County Commissioner Charles Sanow. “The kids would have computers, this guy would have work, we’d get the stuff out of the landfill, we wouldn’t have to pay for it getting processed somewhere else.”
“The obstacles that I saw that prevented us from allowing computers to be recycled, the county board was supportive of trying to overcome those obstacles,” said Schroeder. “And all of a sudden we were refurbishing computers and getting them back out into the community.”
In 2018 ResQZone was up and running. ResQZone is a partnership between Lyon County and Advance Opportunities. The county contracts with Advance — also located in Marshall (population 13,651 and the largest city in Lyon County) — to provide the staff person who does the refurbishing. Advance covers things like insurance, workers compensation, job coaching, whatever support the worker may need.
“Advance is a place for people with disabilities, but I like to think of them as people with unique abilities,” said Elizabeth Schear, CEO of Advance Opportunities. “What we do on a daily basis is look for ways that we can find the right niche for a person to meet their skills and abilities and desires with the perfect job or the best job that they like. Advance got started with the ResQZone as a support for the person who started the ResQZone, the brains behind the project.”
That’s Jason Redepenning. “I’m the computer guy here. One of the people who was helping me, they asked me what I would want to do, one of those little dream things. “What would you wanna do for the rest of your life for work?” And I told them I wanted to just fix computers and give them to people.”
Redepenning, who has Autism and ADHD, is someone who thrives working amongst the servers and screens and has always had innate drive to help people. ResQZone is a safe place for Redepenning to do both of those things. Redepenning works three days per week and gets paid through the county, which gets some money from reselling higher-end computers and tablets.
Kylie Peterson works for Advance and is Redepenning’s direct support professional. “So I just help out with whatever he needs while he is out here,” she said.
Their refurbishing process goes something like this: the product is donated, sometimes one item at a time, and “sometimes companies will come in and they’ll just give the whole pallet of them,” said Redepenning. “A big pile of them and then we’ll have to go through them. Turkey Valley gave us some and we’re going through them now. [We] find the ones that have too many turkey feathers in them, we throw those way. Kylie gets kind of grossed out with the Turkey feather ones.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Peterson said with a laugh.
Then Redepenning and Peterson take inventory and clean the products, Turkey feathers and all. “And then I start going through it and see that all the parts are there. And then we wipe it,” said Redepenning. They remove all personal data and then the computer gets imaged using a server.
“The Server is basically a dedicated computer. This dedicated computer does one job and one job only, and it holds these files called images on it,” said Redpenning, going through his process. “Those images are not like pictures, like photos, these are full computers already done in one little file. And what that computer does is when we hook up other computers to the network, we can spit out Windows 10 or whatever to all those computers.”
“Our local computer tech service, Computers and Beyond, they’ve been helping us with some of the higher-end issues that we’ve come into,” said Schroeder. “They helped Jason create a server so that he can get multiple machines uploaded with the right software at one time.”
Then it goes on the shelf ready for its new life of web surfing and computing.
Between 2014 and 2018, Lyon County dropped from 17,692 pounds of e-waste recycling to 2,132. Schroeder said that awareness of ResQZone has increased the total volume of electronics they receive, about half of which are old systems that ResQZone can’t use. This has increased their e-waste recycling output over the past three years. In the past three years, ResQZone has gotten 420 computer systems back out into public use and half of those were given out in the past year as Lyon County identified more need in area schools, especially with Covid-19.
“We set up the structure so that it’s needs-based, working through, initially, United Community Action and Southwest Center for Independent Living and some of those other service organizations,” said Schroeder. “Then when the pandemic hit, we thought, ‘well, we need to expand this to schools, if they have a need.”
Schroeder said that the county distributes computers this way because they want to know people’s financial information. “So what we set it up as, if you have a child that gets free and reduced lunches, if you’re a veteran, if you’re someone who receives services from one of these other organizations that is income-based, then we do just need approval that you’re receiving those services, and that qualifies you,” Schroeder explained. “So that way we’re not asking for detailed personal information on anybody, because that’s already being done by another organization.”
While this project took some extra-human bandwidth, Roger Schroeder thinks that now that they’ve worked through the bugs, this could be a plug-and-play operation. “As long as you can find the right staff person that’s able to refurbish the machine, it can work, our space, our footprint is very small. We’re already collecting the machines. So I think it would be easy to replicate throughout the state,” he said.