A weird, sad feeling

I was unfortunate enough to be subjected to a short, 20-minute burst of CNN yesterday, and while that’s unusual in and of itself, it was particularly sad this time because the drivel du jour included a brief segment about computer recycling.

I’ve dug through enough recycling yards in my time to recognize the husks that were on the screen — most of them looked like the ubiquitous Dell GX-series machines, probably Pentium IIIs or early P4s, or perhaps some Gateway counterparts. They’re usually recognizable by the zero-additional-cost “Midnight Black” shells and brightly colored connector overplates on the back, where all the cords and plugs are arranged. A lot of governments and offices bulk-buy systems in that line.

Ordinarily I’m a proponent of recycling old or unwanted things; it’s just the right thing to do, environmentally speaking. But I couldn’t help my initial reaction, which was, “Wait, those are still usable. …”

It was almost comic in hindsight: The report is showing rows of people tearing — literally tearing — the plastic off the cases, prying processors out of their sockets, ripping cables out of their jacks and then hurling the remains into large boxes with labels like “black plastic” or “aluminum.” A giant machine like a meat grinder was crunching up hard drives, and another crew was picking through the results, pulling out the valuable metal and separating the component boards for recycling.

And all the time I’m thinking, “What a shame. All that perfectly good hardware being destroyed. And all they really need is Ubuntu. Or Arch. Or even Crux.”

Of course there’s nothing to be done about it. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, and the machines I have now are more often collector’s items than anything else. What would be a perfectly usable, amazing piece of machinery to me is a castoff to someone else, and labeled as trash.

It’s an issue of personal perspective more than anything. The average computer user is a lot like the average car driver, in that it’s just a machine to get you from point A to point B. And they don’t worry about it until it stops doing what they want. And then it’s time for a new one. My office is like that; the computers there are mismanaged and abused to the point of near unusability, but that just means it’s time to call up Dell Japan and order a new one. 😯

To me it seems like people who appreciate older computers are like the backyard mechanics and mom-and-pop car repair shops I’ve seen everywhere in the world. The people who run those places are more like me (and probably you, if you’ve read this far), willing to tune a machine — be it a car or a computer — to make it work better, and last longer.

I hold no grudges, so if there are some who think it better to cast out the old and drop a load of cash for the new … it is your right. Be my guest.

It doesn’t make me any happier though, watching all those computers going through an industrial masticator. Yes, I know it’s the right thing to do. And who knows? Maybe those backyard mechanics feel the same way when they look at car compactors. 😐


8 thoughts on “A weird, sad feeling

  1. Tony

    I agree with you! It sickens me to see useable computers thrown away.

    My wife is a school teacher and there is a storage room at her school with discarded desktop computers, CRT monitors, and printers. There are rooms like this in each and every school within this school system. The only problem with ‘most’ of the computers are they are for the most part Pentium 3 models. All run Windows 2000 or XP. The school system has a warehouse full of these discarded computers too. For some reason the school system administrator’s will not auction these computers or even give them away to school children who do not have a computer at home. The reason they say is because private information may be on the hard drive and because of Windows licensing agreement the computer hard drives would have to be erased. I suppose eventually they will be landfill fodder?

    My name had been mentioned to be given several of these computers to rework and then give them away to someone in need. I would’ve loaded Linux on the computers and that would’ve taken care of ALL information on the hard drive previously. Needless to say that idea didn’t go very far with the school system.

    I applaud people and groups that rework discarded computers, but sometimes it is an uphill struggle to try and do the right thing…

  2. JiGGaK

    Recently I had to decommission 2 dozen or so p3/p4 desktop PC’s used as servers and desktops. The issue of dealing with sensitive data was an easy one. Build a custom Arch live cd with a small bash script that executes on boot:

    dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/sda

    All these systems are destine for sale, but most will likely end up in a recycling yard.

    Sadly the recycling industry is in a state of flux. With little policing of safe recycling practises, you can expect most of your e-waste to end up in place like China where people will extract the precious metals in a very unhealthy way.


    So far I have had a hard time trying to find a way to filter the responsible recyclers from the irresponsible.

  3. A.Y. Siu

    Well, the three R’s are Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (in that order). Unfortunately a lot of people get so fixated on the Recycle part that they forget about Reducing and Reusing.

    I wouldn’t say there’s nothing that can be done about it, but doing something can get quite involved. I’m quite impressed with the ACCRC.

    They will take re-usable computer parts, install Linux on them, and give them to needy individuals, non-profits, or schools. What is unusable, they melt down and recycle.

  4. dannybuntu

    Well, some people were insightful enough that soem of those machines are being sold here in the Philippines for 5000 pesos. You could literally buy a laptop here that costs $50 to $100 USD. Most of the machines that end up here are PIIIs and PIVs from South Korea. Hehehe, so much for sending the 100$ laptop in third world countries.


    There, another free business idea from your truly 🙂

  5. Timmy Macdonald

    I get angry about computers being thrown out, like everyone here, but I also get mad at the amount of time, effort, money and waste that goes into the Microsoft-created push to replace computers every 3-5 years. Schools are “upgrading” from XP to Vista all over the place, when the only need for extra hardware is to support a needlessly bloated OS. The ideal would be to put Linux on all of them–they’d be fine until all the hardware actually died–but even just common maintenance would help a lot.

    Although…if everyone hangs on to their computers forever, where does that leave us, the geeks who snap up the “old” computers?

  6. eksith

    What a waste!

    Older computers make excellent thin client terminals.

    I don’t think it’s you putting in your own perspective. I think it’s just them loosing theirs. When someone is so bent on one goal, they fail to see other possibilites.

    Classic case of technological short-sightedness.


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