Creative Recycling— Not a Plug

Cockroaches are nothing if not thorough and they have absolutely destroyed my old laptop. It’s easy to be upset but on the grand stage of life this crisis cannot be compared to any you’ll see on the news. It was an old computer and served me well, never asking anything in return. It was also free.

So I find myself in a unique situation. I’ve recently purchased a G4 Powerbook from a reliable refurbisher/reseller operating out of San Jose through eBay. However I used my work account because we had a coupon that saved me fifty bucks and I’ve written a check to my job that hasn’t been cashed yet. The computer is either in San Jose getting packed up or is in between being roughly handled by someone with a secure job and little to lose. My old laptop is with my boss who had his boyfriend pry it apart in an effort to rescue my harddrive (no luck) and I’m operating a loaned IBM ThinkPad (thanks, Keith) after discovering that my old G3 Desktop can barely handle Gmail.

The fact that a computer from the 90’s still works isn’t surprising and I would have no problems with my old reserve except that it has been outpaced by development. In many ways the old desktop is a superior computer– it frequently runs faster than either of the laptops in my life and it never has problems with different programs interfering with one another; the problem is that everything operates on new programs that don’t run on the older computer. I could hook it up to an office network and use printers, type up reports and run spreadsheets as efficiently as anyone with a computer half its age.

When I was twenty I worked on the internet, specifically for a company called NextMonet which sold “contemporary fine art” online. The business model was horrible but very en vogue at the time– get investment capital and spend all of it on things you don’t need. There was the programmer corner, the writer’s room and the main room was split between various functions; everyone had their own work station and new computer and everyone spent a lot of their time using about 10% of what had been issued them to do their jobs. The writers honestly could have used typewriters but they demanded special lighting and chairs to write little sonnets describing the crap for sale. Shockingly the upside-down pyramid financial plan ended in tears for everyone and layoffs eliminated the writing staff, then half of the main office. I dismantled all of the IKEA office furniture I had assembled and moved around, then was laid off after NextMonet was absorbed by another company.

It was obviously a poor way to run a company but what lingers most in my mind is how much technology is wasted. Subsequently I worked for a large corporate law firm that was similarly stocked with top of the line computers for everyone, staffed by a crew of legal aides who had no idea how to use them and who essentially wasted an entire computer to check their e-mail when they left their Blackberry at home. This was a major company, a well respected (in the business world) firm, but there was no need for every employee to have fancy computers. However the firm had to update their systems frequently because as new software was developed new computers needed to be able to process the applications. The development of technology was driven by an understandable enthusiasm but the result was lost, and continues to be lost, on most people.

Computers are hardly benign fixtures of every day life. Each component contains heavy metals and various poisons which must be extracted from the ground, typically by people living in environmental catastrophes who live in shanty-towns, owe their souls to the company store and who find any attempt to complain or better their lives pacified by machine guns. When personal commuting and consumer electronics took off the race for various mineral and metal deposit rights became an international chess game that exploded into a bloodbath when cellphones became the standard form of communication. The same people who put “No Blood for Oil” bumper stickers on their cars don’t seem as concerned about the cadmium in their laptop battery, or the wiring in their cellphone. However, the commodities are cheaply traded and the brightly lit baubles affordable in the first world, so it’s really no bother to upgrade your phone every couple of years, buy that new iPod with more storage space, and pick up the new laptop with a faster processor to play video games on.

If we won’t decrease the production then we should invest in the recycling. This has become much more visible in the past couple of years, and easier in certain parts of the country. At my job we have a “Green Box” where people can throw old batteries or small electronic trinkets in to be hauled off and recycled. You can drop computers off at any number of charity organizations who refurbish what is salvageable or recycle what isn’t. It’s hardly the ideal solution to the growing waste problem of technology development but it’s the least we can do.


Photo by Adam Dean

Except that more and more attention is being called to the fact that the recycling of computers isn’t really sparing the world another dose of garbage. The United States has been a top exporter of trash to China for a long time, so obviously they would be a primary candidate to receive our junked TVs and microwaves and PCs. Unfortunately China’s desperation to become a superpower has them overlooking issues like environmental impact, worker safety or ethics. Towns has sprung up in the mainland which are populated by migrant workers and their families who perform the dangerous task of stripping electronics of their metals without gloves, masks, or safe disposal of cadmium, mercury, lead, chromium and dioxides. In the world spotlight this month is Guiyu, where the water cannot be touched, let alone drunk, and miscarriages and birth defects are common. Exporting what is considered toxic waste is illegal both in the States and China but it’s a profitable endeavor hedged by both white collar criminals and organized crime. It’s not just a problem in China but India and Africa as well– any place in the developing world where starving people can be coerced into living in squalor and poisoning themselves for the benefit of the developed world.

Now I’m not even sure how to dispose of my dearly departed laptop, savaged by cockroaches after years of service. In addition to the harddrive being fucked the casing is cracked so no charity organization will swap out the innards (and I’m not so crazy about giving the Christians an excuse to feel smug anyway) but if poorly supervised recycling companies are selling their waste illegally to be processed by poor migrants half the world away I’m not sure what I can do. It’ll take some digging for a reputable organization. I can’t help but think that when most people are weighing their own computer disposal problems they’re focused more on ensuring that their personal information isn’t falling into the hands of data thieves.

60 Minutes aired a piece on this subject earlier this month which I can’t watch because this computer is too old.
The EPA has compiled a quick-guide to electronics recycling, although they admit no one’s really keeping track of exported tons and meaningless trivia like that.
Newspaper The Epoch Times recently ran a story on the subject as it relates to Vancouver, a major shipping port running computers and electronics to China.
Seattle’s Basel Action Network is an environmental justice group focused on issues of electronic and toxic waste.

All were very helpful as I rattled my thoughts around.

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