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What Happens to Recycled Computers?


Several years ago, I volunteered for a day to help out at a thrift store run by the headquarters of a nationwide church organization. That day, in addition to the many carloads of other things donators provided, we accepted computers, monitors, and printers. Among the computers were five or six nice-looking laptops. I was told to take all the computer equipment and put it in a pile for the computer recyclers to pick up later. I was also told that the thrift store didn't really like people donating computer equipment, because it had to pay the computer recyclers to take it away. But, the thrift store was too afraid of insulting donators to not accept their computer equipment. I said that I would be happy to take some of the stuff away for free. They wouldn't let me do that. When I offered to pay for it, they said that "volunteer employees" (a clear contradiction of terms) were not allowed to shop in the store. So, the bottom line was that rather than getting good money by selling what looked like some perfectly-good, used computer equipment, the thrift store preferred to pay money to have it hauled away. The obvious question is, "Why?" Much later, the question still bothering me, I did a little research. Here is what I found.

In 2014, the United States produced about 11.7 million tons of electronic waste, or e-waste. Every day we throw away about 142,000 computers. Currently, only 15-20% of our e-waste is recycled. The rest ends up in landfills and incinerators.

In 2010, NPR did a story on what happens to e-waste after we give it to so-called recyclers. They found that 80% is shipped to countries like China, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Nigeria. There, if it isn't just dumped in a landfill, often inadequately trained and protected workers disassemble it for whatever parts they can scavenge. The rest becomes a big environmental problem. Apparently, some of that shipping is illegal, because in December 2013, Interpol was investigating 40 companies for illegally shipping e-waste out of the European Union.

In 2017, Digital Journal reported that an international team of researchers warned that recycling of rare earth minerals from e-waste would have to be increased in order to meet the demands in the future. Digital Journal also said that in 2010 China, which controls 95% of the world's rare earth minerals, was accused of stopping exports of rare earth minerals to Europe and the United States.

My interpretation of the meaning of all this is that despite the fact that we have a dwindling supply of the rare elements we need to build our computers, we are throwing away an immense number of perfectly usable computers. Although most people assume that our computers are being recycled, only a small percentage of what we throw away actually receives any effort whatsoever at being recycled. Many companies are pretending to recycle while actually dumping e-waste in developing countries. From other things I've read, recycling, when it does occur, is very incomplete. And neither workers nor the environment are protected from the components of our unnecessarily abandoned computer equipment.

A logical question to ask is why this is happening. I addressed one of the causes in an article I wrote three weeks ago on built-in obsolescence. Companies intentionally produce products that are designed to break sooner than necessary, so that we will be forced to come back to them to buy replacements. One company that is seen as especially environmentally friendly, Apple Computer, rather than collecting and reusing parts whenever possible, actually forces "recyclers" to completely shred its products into very small pieces, apparently so that they cannot be repaired or resold. Despite already being the most profitable company in the entire world, some people are saying that Apple does not allow it's recyclers to resell used Apple products to third parties, even though some are still worth hundreds of dollars each. In short, the reason more used computers are not reused is very simple: pure greed.

Another reason that I understand, because I've spent most of my career writing software for a living, is that engineers rarely make an effort to write software that runs efficiently. I think this is the predominant reason that consumers were forced to upgrade their computers every two or three years during the decades of the '80's, 90's, and 2000's. And, although this has slowed some, principally because CPU's are not increasing in power as fast as they once were, it still continues today. For convenience, engineers nowadays are also using much more code written in interpreted languages, like Java and PHP, instead of much faster compiled languages, like "C". Let's look at just one example of the results of inefficient coding, internet browsers. Here are the minimum system requirements for some popular browsers over the years.

Year   Browser CPU RAM on Windows    Disk Space on Windows
1994 Netscape Navigator 2.02  4 MB
1996 Netscape 4.5 486 16 MB
1996 Netscape 4.08 8 MB
1997 Internet Explorer 4 386DX 16 MB 11 MB
2001 Internet Explorer 6 486/66 MHz 64 MB 8.7 MB
2002 Netscape 7 233 MHz Pentium 64 MB 26 MB
2006 Firefox 2 233 MHZ Pentium  64 MB 52 MB
2007 Netscape 9 233 MHz Pentium 64 MB 35 MB
2009 Internet Explorer 8 233 MHZ 64 MB 120 MB
2010 Firefox 4.0 Pentium 4 512 MB 200 MB
2011 Internet Explorer 9 1 GHz 512 MB 120 MB
2012 Firefox 16.0.2 Pentium 4 512 MB 200 MB
2013 Internet Explorer 11 1 GHz 1 GB 16 GB
2015 Firefox 39.0 Pentium 4 512 MB 200 MB
2018 Firefox 64.0 Pentium 4 512 MB 200 MB

I didn't include the requirements for the Chrome browser, because they're very difficult to find by version number. Looking at the above numbers, one who is not acquainted with the intricacies of web browser design could be tempted to ask, "If I could surf the internet in 1997 with a computer running on 4 MB of RAM, why does it take half a gigabyte or more today?"

I think there are a few reasons. A large part of the answer could be the fact that consumers are constantly wanting the latest shiny new gadgets and software. While much of what we are looking at on the internet could be perfectly adequately consumed in text-only mode, we insist on fancy, totally unnecessary graphics and animation. We seem to be much more concerned about "glitz" than function. But website designers certainly share the blame. I've shown in a previous article that I can realistically serve over a million pages of static content (i.e. text and pictures without any running code) per month on a Raspberry Pi 3 web server that consumes a mere 2 watts of electricity. When I tell people that, they are astonished, because they have been conditioned to believe that web servers have to be very beefy computers with huge hard drives. The reason for this mis-impression is that most web servers are running very inefficient software and serving web pages that are written inefficiently. Have you heard the saying that with a powerful enough engine, you can fly a barn door?

What are some examples of inefficient websites? If you've been a Netflix subscriber for years, you are probably aware that its internet browser requirements are rather draconian. You are frequently forced to upgrade browsers to nearly the most recent version for seemingly no apparent reason. At the moment, I am running Netflix on a core i5 computer with 8GB of RAM, because that is the oldest convenient computer that I have that has enough RAM to run Chrome 52. I could probably still run Netflix on a fast core 2 Duo, if I had to. But, compare this to a DVD that I can watch on a computer with a 500 MHz Pentium 3 from 1999! I dropped Pandora nearly two years ago, because it was tying up over 60% of my core 2 Duo 9600 CPU's processing capability. This is to run something that should be no more CPU intensive than an MP3 player!

So, what can we do to keep our computers out of landfills longer? The answer isn't hard to understand. First, we can refuse to buy computers that are designed to fail after two or three years. This means doing some research before buying a new computer. The next thing we can do is to not insist on the latest glitzy hardware and software. We can shop for software with low system requirements. Then, we can leave websites that are slow, because the slow websites are more likely to be the inefficient ones. To some extent, this is already happening, thanks to page loading speed being one of the criteria that the Google search engine uses to rank websites. If a website is slow, Google puts that website farther down in its search results. That means less traffic arrives at that website. As far as I'm concerned, that is a very good thing. The last thing we can do is to not give away computers to organizations unless we know that they will not be "recycling" them. That is, we can give computers to organizations that will be getting them into the hands of people who want to use them. Ideally, we should be putting computers directly into the hands of less fortunate people, without involving any middlemen at all.

Related Articles:

Computer Built-In Obsolescence

How Powerful a CPU do You Really Need?

How to get a Cheap Laptop

How to make Your Computer Last Longer


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