“‘I can’t come to work this morning. I’m having a psychotic episode.’ I’ve received that phone call,” says James Burgett, one of the founders of the Alameda County Computer Resource Center (ACCRC). “Is that not the perfect ‘I’m not coming to work excuse’? There’s not a single boss that’s going to ignore that one.”
The ACCRC is an independent, nonprofit electronic recycling and computer-refurbishing center that gives refurbished computers to schools, nonprofit organizations, and economically and/or physically disadvantaged individuals. The center receives no grants or tax funding but manages to support a staff of 18. And it’s quite a staff.
“My workers,” Burgett says, “are all nutcakes, criminals, and druggies — reformed.” Then he corrects himself: “Some of them are still in reformation.” Burgett hires almost exclusively from drug treatment and psychiatric treatment centers. “We find that most of the time normals don’t fit in very well,” he says. “I don’t know if you want to look at it as me herding a group of freaks—think of it as a group of people who’ve formed nice symbiotic relation to the world they don’t understand.”
“I have had Jehovah’s witnesses working alongside transsexuals in the middle of their sex change operations. This is fun stuff,” Burgett says. “You can’t get this in the normal world.”
“If you’re somebody who isn’t stupid, and you know that you’re never going to fit in with the normal crowd, can you think of a better niche than as an environmental junkyard operator?” Burgett is on a roll, accelerating with every word. “Why am I doing this?” he asks himself. “It fit. I’m good at it. We’re in a slightly better place everyday because we do it.” He pauses. “And the fact that we get to play everyday and blow things up, that’s just frosting.”
Burgett describes himself as a “350-pound ex-junkie with a rather significant head injury.” He says, “I’ve given away 16,000 computers, and I’m now at the point where I can look at myself in the mirror. And if you talk to most of my staff you’ll see that’s why they’re in it.”
ACCRC began as the Marin Computer Resource Center in 1994, which makes this year its 13th anniversary. The fact that 13 is something to be celebrated should tell you something about the place, or at least the people who work there. ACCRC was initially affiliated with a daycare center in Marin, but after a number of promises fell through and quite a bit of set-up paperwork was still undone, Burgett filed the paperwork himself and moved the operation into his spare bedroom. This, apparently, “didn’t sit too well with the Mrs.” He moved again, this time to an old warehouse, which he powered by screwing a wall plug into the light socket.
Now ACCRC boasts 40,000 square feet between two locations: a small distribution facility in Novato staffed by two, and a large warehouse in Berkeley, where a staff of 16 and a number of volunteers do most of the electronics refurbishing. Burgett believes he has the highest reuse percentage in the industry: ACCRC moves about 200,000 pounds of electronics a month. And traffic has only increased. “People find us. We’ve recently started ads, but I’m not that impressed with them. Quite honestly, we behave very strangely and that attracts more attention than anything else.”
“Can I brag?” Burgett asks. “I have computers on every continent on earth.” That includes Antarctica: two years ago, ACCRC gave two notebooks to a Chilean expedition that went there to study ozone depletion.
ACCRC provided computers to an organization studying the DNA of cheetahs for crossbreeding purposes. “If you just let them breed,” Burgett explains, “the birth defects build up—it’s like letting a small group of cousins breed.” The organization has sent computers to Cambodia to train public defenders for the first time since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. And it’s even sent computers to the Kazakhstan Electoral College—twice. Twice because the first trainload of computers disappeared somewhere outside St. Petersburg.
Security companies also come to ACCRC looking for hardware on which to test new subversion tools. “Periodically a white hat needs to take a piece of technology and break it to figure out how to secure it,” Burgett says. “We’re usually the guys that have the machine that they’re trying to figure out how to exploit.”
That Burgett ended up in computers isn’t surprising: his father was a player in the industry, designing the 8088 and 8086 processors at Intel in the ’80s. That is until he went, in Burgett’s words, “stark staring mad.” Burgett scored well on intelligence tests but performed poorly in school. He attended alternative schools until he got parked at a continuation school: “It’s a place where they take children who are failing their education and keep them in a room for the federally required amount of time so they can collect funding.”
Not surprisingly, Burgett was on the street by age 16. “I have no college education,” he says. “I pretty much majored in drug consumption.” To support his habit, he began pulling computers out of dumpsters and fixing them. But selling drugs was more profitable, so he sold what he was using: heroin and methadone.
Meanwhile he sheltered himself through residential and environmental programs. From the ages of 16 to 18, Burgett jumped from program to program, including the Youth Conservation Corps, the Young Adult Conservation Corps, the California Conservation Corps, and the Marin Conservation Corps. Many of the jobs, like that of a seasonal firefighter, were short-term. Burgett says these programs were the best way for a really young person to get off the street without having to “put up with your parents.”
And much of what he learned back in the ’80s stuck. He says the programs are why he is environmentally aware today. “They did good,” Burgett says. “Every once in awhile our government seems to get it sort of right.”
Today, Burgett is in the midst of turning an old-school milkshake mixer into a drill press. He’s welding a drill head mounting to the metal shaft of the mixer so that when the blender head goes up and down, it will drill holes in things. The big facility in Berkeley runs off a Chinese military surplus diesel generator the center received from people helping ACCRC send computers to Cuba. Burgett wanted to ship the generator to Cuba as well, but it was too heavy.
He’s just about finished converting a 1967 Cadillac hearse to propane. Next he plans to work on methane. “The people who bought into the ‘I’m going to buy a disposable car with batteries&’ Do you realize those cars have a seven-year lifespan? Then you have to replace the entire battery bank—and it’s made out of toxic waste.”
Burgett’s smallest car has a 460-cubic-inch engine, yet it has less than a third of the emissions of an SUV of comparable size. He races through a description of his methane-driven carburetor, spewing out technical terms. Every time I try to slow him down, he gets frustrated. “Walk with me,” he insists. Finally I get the gist: biodegradable refuse, as it decays, releases methane into the environment. But when methane is burned, it breaks into one carbon dioxide molecule and two hydrogen molecules. Carbon dioxide contributes to the greenhouse effect, but 20 times less than letting the refuse degrade. “If I run a car off the biodegeneration,” he says, “I am cleaner than if I let this stuff sit in my backyard. I can legitimately state that this car is cleaner than the natural process.” Without a second’s pause, he concludes, “And, yes, I’m always like this.”
Burgett stresses that he is not a genius. “There is nothing you will find that we have done that hasn’t been done by some reasonably gifted high school class. Computers are just rocks with wires in them.” ACCRC has an incentive to experiment, because, as Burgett says, through its recycling fee, “People pay us to find things to do with [their old electronics] other than send [them] to the dump.”
Burgett says he doesn’t even fix computers. “We go to a pile of processors, and we rip the parts we think we can use and slam them together in another box. We’ve gotten really good at selecting the parts that will work. Saying we do computer repairs is like saying Frankenstein did surgery.”
And he says that professional computer repairmen—”the bigwig guy who charges you 150 dollars an hour”—are doing the exact same thing. “No one does component level repair anymore,” he says. “If the computer goes bad, they’re not going to fix the thing. They’re going to find the component that went bad and replace it. They’re doing the Frankenstein thing too. But they’re playing with new parts. We, on the other hand, like playing with dead things.”
Of the four founders of ACCRC, Burgett is the only one left. Burgett says when he’s feeling pompous, he thinks the other three weren’t strong enough to shoulder the load. But when he’s being realistic, he thinks, “They go on to have families and jobs, and I have a glorified junkyard full of convicts.” He pauses to reflect. “I think I’m the one who tied my image and self-ego to it and therefore could not run away from it and let it die. I self-identify with the organization very, very strongly.”
“The good news,” he says, “is that I have a nonstandard measure of success.” He lowers his voice theatrically: “The bad news is that I need it.”
ACCRC is located at 1501 Eastshore Hwy, Berkeley. 510-528-4052, firstname.lastname@example.org