NOTE: Some of the links mentioned below may no longer exist but the ideas remain valid, important and correct.

California took a huge step backwards for resource conservation when it passed what the recyclers and garbagemen like to call E-Waste legislation. Actually, anything that defines any product as waste or decrees anything to be waste is a huge step into the bad old past, when resources could be made into expensive products and then tossed into a dump after one use.

It was widely reported that people everywhere were holding onto their old electronic devices, and especially computers, because they knew that they were working fine, but were just outmoded. Wouldn’t you think that all these computers might be organized to go to the billions of people in the world who have never been able to afford a computer? But no, intelligence and resource conservation is never part of the game in the capitol.

There is even a flourishing trade in COMPUTER REFURBISHING ! (see video here) All the legislators had to do was support this existing industry which repairs computers, even under these terribly unfavorable conditions, with computers being specifically designed to go obsolete after a few years. This industry donates thousand of computers every month to non-profits and social work agencies and has branches in other countries.

Instead, the recyclers, scaremongers and garbage industry set their sights on destroying every computer they could find. They based their campaign on what has become the standard approach to environmental drumming up the troops – scare the bejesus out of them!

See also the September 2010 Newsletter in our Archives.

Story after story was generated about how there is LEAD IN CRT’S! (Note: CRT=cathode ray tube = computer monitor). And we all know that lead is as scary as Plutonium. Isn’t it?

The stories hardly mentioned that the lead is INSIDE GLASS! No, I don’t mean inside a glass container. I mean inside the glass itself. Like it was mixed in when the glass was molten. And it was put there for this excellent reason – to protect computer users from radiation coming through the screen from the inside of the CRT. To read the scare stories, you would have thought that the lead was some kind of contaminant and that young children were constantly licking the glass surface of the monitors to try to poison themselves. Hint: licking would not get any lead anyway – remember, inside the glass!

But we haven’t even gotten to the punchline. Because almost all of those CRT’s could have been refurbished, repaired and put back into service, as good as new. In fact, fifty years ago, when CRT’s were first being used in televisions, THAT IS WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM ! There was a normal industry devoted to repairing CRT’s. That industry has been progressively dismantled by the powers that thrive on breaking up and discarding and making everything into garbage, until there is not a single company in the United States today that repairs CRT’s. (see note below)

Naturally the apologists for garbage will tell you that repairing CRT’s is not economic. As if there is some magical market that operates outside of politics, outside of lobbyists, outside of greed. Nonsense! The repair of CRT’s went away for the same reason that all repair has vanished – because the marketing mafia, caring nothing for the destruction of our planetary resources, decreed that making products that disintegrated after a year or two was the path to profit. And now the California legislature, putting the final stamp on universal garbage generation, has made sure that the repair of CRT’s will never again rear its ugly head.

To add insult to injury, now that beneficial reuse has been ruled out, the wasters have the nerve to generate videos ( See E-waste lamentations on Youtube) and articles showing how poor the Chinese and Africans are at chopping up old computers and extracting bits of metal or glass. And they want to use this obvious result of their assault on reuse as the springboard for the next round of wasteful and irresponsible mischief coming out of the politics of waste.

The lesson to take away: Next time that you hear about how toxic and hazardous and dangerous something is (their favorite words) stop, think, and find out from someone who does not stand to gain dues or business or members from your fear, what other way there might be to handle the situation. Is fear really productive to you, or just to the fear mongers?

Here is another wrinkle on the whole question of why computers become obsolete. It isn’t just that they burn out and break. Sometimes it’s just because the software in use today won’t run on an old computer so the owner thinks the computer has become unusable. But what if our operating system of today could run on very old computers? Here is how Linux does exactly that.

Not every Zero  Waste upgrade revolves around computers. In 2016, in Scientific American, David Pogue explained how standardizing charging cables, used for charging the batteries in hundreds of devices, can save many tons of unnecessary production of different kinds of cables, by fitting all devices. The new cable standard, called USB Type C includes a charging connection that can deliver up to 100 watts, which makes it robust enough for all PC computers and all small devices like smartphones, not to mention printers, scanners, hubs and other peripherals. Read our section on Principles to refresh your memory about those two pillars of Zero Waste design, standardization and modularization. UniformChargingCords

In the PRINCIPLES section of this website, it is explained how modularity is one of the legs of the three legged stool of standardization, modularity and design for repair. Here is a video of how modularity can be designed into smartphones.

Jim Lynch runs the Computer Refurbishers from his job in San Francisco. He writes for the TechSoup blog and this article there reveals some very interesting realities which show that Zero Waste can capture the values inherent in computers while recycling them is simply a way to discard all of those inputs of function, organization, materials and energy. This quote from the blog reveals much:

The scientific basis for the environmental kudos refurbished IT equipment receive is from Dr. Eric Williams of Arizona State University in his book, co-authored with Ruediger Kuehr, Computers and the Environment, Understanding and Managing Their Impacts. In it they find that the environmental cost to produce a computer and monitor is immense, especially for microprocessors. Producing the average 53-pound desktop computer and CRT monitor requires 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 50 pounds of chemicals, and 3,330 pounds of water. Adding additional life to computers saves 5 to 20 times more energy than recycling over the computer’s life cycle. It’s much better for the environment to extend the life of a computer for an extra two or three years than to buy a new one every three to four years.The thing I found perhaps most interesting in the Williams and Kuehr findings is that 75 percent of PC energy consumption has already happened before a new computer is ever switched on. It is used up in the production phase. If this equipment has a six or seven year lifespan rather than three or four years, the environmental impact of this for even a fraction of the 1.1 billion computers now in use in the world will be immense.

The green argument for electronics reuse goes beyond Williams and Kuehr, however. Paul Hawkins and Amory Lovins, in their book, Natural Capitalism, find that the volume of material that goes into manufacturing a laptop is 4,000 to 1. When you discard a 5 pound laptop you are also throwing away the 20,000 pounds of raw materials it took to make it.

This is the kind of detailed study that could be done by universities if Zero Waste analysis was a normal part of the research curriculum. The technical basis of the superiority of Zero Waste designing over all and any form of recycling is not in dispute but the numerical and particular analysis is still  wanting.

Here are some more germane references from Jim Lynch’s blog:

Of the 800 or so US refurbishers listed in the Microsoft Registered
Refurbisher Program directory
. More than half are nonprofit and many of those have been in operation for many years.

At TechSoup.org, one of our missions is to advocate for electronics reuse and to help refurbishment programs of all sorts get started. We host free manuals for starting a refurbishment center
by nonprofit refurbisher Pat Furr of Computers for Classrooms in California.

Here’s a few more electronics reuse resources that might be useful:

iFixit just came out with a great reuse activist self repair manifesto:

For small and medium sized offices, we have some how-to content around extending the life of IT equipment:TechSoup for Libraries: How to extend the life of your IT equipment
TechSoup: Keeping Old Computers Alive Article

On the meta statistical level, here is a resource:
Cal E-waste failing.

I have reported elsewhere that I had a chat at a Design Show with an engineer for a circuit board manufacturing company who assured me that all the boards they manufacture have critical test points that they use to check that the board is operating properly before they sell it. Then they hide the test points, never to be used again. Obviously if the board were meant to be repaired, those test points would be publicly reported and their critical outputs known.

Even in the environment of hidden components, some people have amazing technical knowledge and specialized tools and software for repairing complex electronics. Look at this Youtube video for a lesson in the deep, technical knowhow that it is possible to bring to this field. Youtube

And New York has problems searching for a way to get a handle on unwanted electronics: Gotham City.  We learn from this article that as of 2007, Americans discarded 3 million tons of unwanted electronics every year.

CRT’s consist of a blown glass envelope, or shell, into which is placed a high voltage “gun” that sprays electrons onto the inside of the front surface, or screen. Chemicals (phosphors) on that screen convert the electron energy into light which you see as an image. In something like ninety five percent of the cases when a CRT fails, it is because the electronic gun has burned out. The repair consists of putting a new gun into the back, thus reusing the glass envelope and the expensive, finely tuned phosphors. The old gun can be repaired or disassembled.
In 2004 I called up every potential CRT repair company I could think of. They all assured me that no one replaces guns any more. – PP