From Junkie to, Well, Junkman
by Leander Kahney Email 05.28.02 | 2:00 AM
OAKLAND, California -- James Burgett is a big, burly biker and an ex-heroin junkie who is building a trash empire from recycled computers.
He has hooked together a cluster of junk machines into what may soon qualify as one of the world's fastest supercomputers.
And he's a leading low-tech philanthropist, giving away thousands of refurbished computers to disadvantaged people all over the world, from human rights organizations in Guatemala to the hard-up Russian space program.
Burgett runs the Alameda County Computer Resource Center, which he has built from a spare bedroom operation into one of the largest non-profit computer recycling centers in the United States.
The business of building new computers may be in a downturn, but the business of getting rid of old ones is booming. There are more computers heading for landfill than are being sold, according to the California Materials Exchange.
Burgett, who weighs 350 pounds, dresses in black and his arms are covered in tattoos. His giant operation is housed in an old ice cream plant in an impoverished neighborhood in east Oakland, California, where a recent gang war resulted in 14 murders in just one month.
For James Burgett, pennies don't come from heaven, they come from recycled computers. The ex-junkie biker is building a trash empire from "chip picked" computers.
Sandwiched between nail parlors and taco trucks, his 38,000-square-foot warehouse is the size of a football field. It is filled with wooden palettes stacked high with obsolete computers, monitors and other detritus. The plant processes 200 tons of equipment a month, most of it from big companies like Wells Fargo or Visa.
"This is just one month's flow," said Burgett, sweeping a beefy arm across an endless sea of junk. "Impressive, isn't it?"
Almost all of it is recycled or reused. Burgett's is a "chip picking" operation. Machines are stripped of useful parts, and everything else -– glass, metal, plastic -- goes to raw-materials recyclers. Nothing goes to landfill or Asia.
"The total garbage from this facility is one dumpster's worth of organic waste and food wrappers," Burgett said. "And that's only because people have got to eat."
Burgett started small: In 1994 he was a dumpster diver with what he says was a heroin habit. He filled his low-income apartment with salvaged computers, using them to build a walkway, a patio and a veranda. When he ran out of room he gave a dozen rebuilt machines to a local school.
Unknown to him, the donation was written up in the local Sunday paper. The next morning he got a call from a local company wanting to donate a truckload of machines.
He rented a storage locker, then two, then three. In the past few years he's moved 10 times, each time to a bigger plant. "Every time we walk into a new building we go, 'This is huge,' but then it's full, within a couple of days sometimes," he said.
Burgett said he was recently offered an airliner and an aircraft carrier, but didn't have the room to take it. Now he's looking at buying another warehouse in the neighborhood with a yard four times the size. He's also hoping to get GSA certification, which will allow him to take government waste, the single biggest source in the world.
People used to give Burgett computers, but now they have to pay him to take them away.
Because of recent changes in federal and California law, Burgett has to pay recyclers to process things like monitors, which are full of poisonous lead. Burgett charges a disposal fee, but he's not making money from his growing empire: He pours it back into his nonprofit activities. It's actually more cost effective to give away a working computer than it is to trash it.
Burgett has a couple dozen volunteers working for him, refurbishing computers. Some are underemployed Silicon Valley nerds, but most are referred by homeless shelters, rehab programs or parole officers for basic job training.
Burgett used to give away a couple hundred refurbished computers a year. Last year it was 5,000. This year it will be about 12,000. Burgett claims to have donated computers to every continent, including Antarctica. They are everywhere: from schools in Africa to orphanages in Mexico.
Most of Oakland's schools have one or two. Burgett said he used to be the biggest supplier of computers to Cuba's health system, until Fidel Castro declared all PCs state property. Burgett stopped sending them.
All the machines are loaded with SuSe's version of the free Linux operating system. It takes too long to load Linux via the CD drive, so Burgett hooks each machine onto a network to burn in the operating system.
A network of PCs can be made to operate in parallel, as a cluster. Hook up enough nodes and you get a virtual supercomputer.
Burgett has connected 300 junk machines to the cluster at one time, although he is currently running between 50 and 75 nodes. By the summer, he plans to expand the cluster to about 200 machines, which he hopes will qualify it for the world's top 500 supercomputers.
"I find it really entertaining to think that one of the most powerful clusters in the world is in a junkyard in East Oakland," he said. "I'm hoping to open it up to the Oakland school district. I think inner-city kids should have their own supercomputer."
The facility also hosts Koox, an Internet radio station, and plans to open a vintage computer museum.
"James is very, very smart, very tough, can be extremely ornery at times, but is extremely fair, and extraordinarily generous," said his friend Sellam Ismail, founder of the Vintage Computer Festival, which stores his collection of vintage machines for free at the plant.
Ismail estimated that over the years Burgett's efforts have directly benefited thousands of people and indirectly helped perhaps hundreds of thousands.
"That's pretty impressive for one guy," Ismail said.