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the reconnect project gives old technology a second life
snap by Carine Thévenau

the reconnect project gives old technology a second life

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Whether your portable technology is out of date, malfunctioning or smashed to bits, this Sydney-based social enterprise will still find a use for it.

What do you do with your phone when you upgrade to a new model? If you don’t manage to sell it or pass it on, chances are you simply plonk it in a drawer and never think of it again. Well, you’re not alone. According to statistics in recent years, there are 23 million unused (and often perfectly functional) phones across Australia, just sitting there gathering dust until they’re inevitably KonMari-ed out.

When Sydneysider Annette Mayne realised the global scale of this e-waste, she couldn’t look away. To someone who’d grown up in a family of fixers and makers (and who proudly uses an iPhone 5 to this day), the numbers seemed ridiculous. So, in 2019, Annette founded The Reconnect Project, a Sydney-based social enterprise that wipes and refurbishes pre-owned phones, tablets and laptops and passes them on to people in need. Every device is a direct donation from the general public, and once fixed up, is distributed via support agencies, including women’s shelters, refugee services and youth outreach programs.

Having worked in communications and sustainability since 2002, Annette was initially motivated by minimising waste in a consumer-driven world. What she didn’t expect was just how crucial The Reconnect Project’s social mission would be. “We’ve been overwhelmed by the demand for devices,” she says. “We’ve gotten calls from case workers all over Australia because our ability to send their client a free phone or laptop saves valuable time. Without us, they’d have to scrounge around for funding and buy the cheapest mobile phone plan available.”

Though owning a phone or laptop might seem like a given in today’s age, Annette says there’s a growing divide in Australia between those who have access to digital technology and those who don’t – something that’s become especially apparent during lockdowns, when people have been forced to work and study from home. In one case, The Reconnect Project helped send phones to clients in a remote area, where there was previously only one phone for the entire community. In another, they provided laptops and tablets to people who’d come from transitional housing and just begun studying. “They didn’t have the funds to purchase their own device to use for their studies, so it was imperative they were given something just to make a start,” Annette says. For people in highly vulnerable circumstances, technology can be a lifeline. “If you’re in a family violence situation, your existing phone might have tracking software on it, or you might be on a family plan that your abuser has control over,” Annette explains. “It’s essential to have a new, safe phone that can’t be traced.”

Figuring out the best way to keep The Reconnect Project sustainable is still a work in progress for Annette. At the moment, it’s just her and a tech specialist who works two days a week, so keeping up with the demand from case workers is the biggest challenge. Funding from local councils has gotten the project to where it is today, but Annette knows she can’t rely on grants forever. To help keep the wheels turning, she’s opening a repair shop in the south-Sydney suburb of Penshurst that will hopefully generate an income stream to support the project’s social mission – as well as providing a dedicated space to host future volunteer repairers. With any luck, she’ll convince the public of her environmentally focused ‘repair and reuse’ ethos, too.

In the meantime, Annette is working on collecting as many pieces of old, unused and broken portable technology as she can. The Reconnect Project has no minimum requirements for donations – they accept all makes and models regardless of age and condition, which means the phone you smashed to bits or once dropped in the loo is perfectly acceptable. “Our workshop is like a grandpa’s shed on steroids with all these components and spare parts,” Annette says. “So, if we can’t fix something, we can still strip it down, pull out the parts and essentially Frankenstein a working phone together. I don’t see any item as waste, but as a resource that you’ve just got to find the right use for.”

If you’re keen to donate an old tablet, laptop or phone, you’ll find postbox addresses and in-person drop-off points at thereconnectproject.com.au

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