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|
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