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ATPM 6.05
May 2000



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Apple Cider: Random Squeezings from a Mac User

by Tom Iovino,

My, How Time Flies

Earlier last month, my wife and I were returning from the local city park. Our son was fast asleep in his car seat, spent after a busy day of celebrating his second birthday.

Could he already be two years old?

We were exhausted too. After all, planning the big event, trying to keep his little playmates from getting into too much trouble, and the drop-off from the sugar high we were experiencing were killing us. But none of these were as exhausting as hauling his treasure trove of presents from the park shelter to the trunk of our car.

Swept up by the moment, my wife and I began to talk about how quickly our son had grown. I can vividly remember our little boy only being able to sleep, cry, and eat. Now, he can walk—nay—run everywhere he needs to go. He can count to ten and tell us exactly how and where he would like his Cheerios to be served to him.

All this development, of course, means that now he is going to need new toys more appropriate for his age. Sure, when he was a newborn, a mobile and rattle filled the bill, but now he needs toys that can challenge his intellect and creativity. Our friends are buying him toys that help him learn his alphabet and how to count.

In much the same way, the computer industry has developed at a blistering pace. A quick look back to the last time the United States elected a President (1996) shows that the most tricked-out Mac you could buy was the Power Macintosh 9500, sporting the 200 MHz Motorola PowerPC 604e chip.

Needless to say, since then we’ve seen the G3 and now the G4 chips, and we’re running into the 500 MHz range. And we still have about six months to go until the election!

Now that we’ve established the fact that hardware muscle has increased dramatically, you can only guess that software engineers have written programs to put this equipment through its paces. It has become more important than ever for computer users to step up to the plate and pony up the money to upgrade their computers to get the latest and the greatest that the industry has to offer.

But this leaves one burning question...

What do you do with your old computer?

For those of us with kids, that question is usually a no-brainer: the kids will get it. Hey, the tykes don’t need the latest and the greatest to run Reader Rabbit or to write their homework on.

But what about those of us who don’t have kids, or those who are replacing even older computers for our young-uns?

In my lifetime, I’ve replaced two computers. The most recent one I disposed of—my trusty old LC 580—I sold to a friend who gave it to his kids. Okay, that kept me from worrying about what to do with it.

But my first computer, a IIsi with a faulty video processor chip, I tossed into the dumpster outside my apartment. Yeah, I thought about it for a few minutes after I pitched it, but what else was I going to do with it?

Apparently, I was not the only person who had this problem. One by-product of Moore’s Law is that these now obsolete machines are becoming a problem for solid waste processors.

Hey, back in the days when a Pentium 90 or a PowerPC 601 processor running at a blazing 80 MHz was king of the hill, sure, people wanted to get their hands on the latest and greatest. But, now with Pentium 90 machines serving as bulky paperweights and Power Macintosh 6100s struggling to keep pace with the intricacies of OS 9, those once-coveted machines are discarded.

Some organizations (specifically, government agencies that can’t merely dispose of assets) simply warehouse such obsolete machines. This is a temporary solution at best, because the county government for which I work is shooting to replace every computer used by its employees once every three years to keep technology current. It’s only a matter of time before the county runs out of space to store these old machines and the cost to maintain the warehouse becomes outrageous.

Another traditional solution to this problem has been to donate the old computers to charities, schools, or other organizations that can’t afford to purchase the latest technology. The only problem with this is that, once again, you’re only temporarily delaying the inevitable. These charities and schools will need to run more and more modern software, which means the life of these computers at these organizations will be short at best.

The third method, which I employed with the IIsi, is just to pitch the old computers into the nearest trash can and be done with them. Sure, your office won’t have to deal with storing them any more, but this method has many effects on our environment.

You see, in every computer, there are a number of components. Each of these components is made of various metals, chemicals, and plastics. Some of these components aren’t too offensive, but some, such as lead and lithium in batteries and mercury in switches, can be downright poisonous, contaminating groundwater supplies for many years to come. Other items, such as plastic casings, don’t readily decompose, which means they’ll be filling our landfills for centuries—even millennia—to come. Also, a number of important metals such as copper, steel, aluminum, and even gold are used in the construction of computers. While maybe not a great deal of these metals are in any one computer, if you take all of the surplus computers from a particular company, it could add up to a significant of materials—just wasting away in a landfill, no good to anyone.

So, where does the answer lie? In recent years, a number of green companies have sprung up—each working to reduce the amount of dangerous and non-biodegradable waste that goes to our landfills. These companies tear the computer down into its basic elements. They pull the copper wire, aluminum and steel frames, and even the gold connectors, and recycle those parts. The dangerous stuff, such as the mercury and lead, is put into barrels and disposed of at a proper waste facility. The plastic is shredded and turned into other plastic items such as toys or household products.

Their efforts are going a long way toward reducing the waste and danger to the public, but there’s one major problem. Field stripping a computer is pretty labor-intensive work, so these companies can only handle a few computers at a time. The rest of the computers that are turned away—well, you can guess that once that happens, most people trying to unload their computers pretty much pitch them right into the landfill.

Well, after my wife and I returned home and put our son to bed, we went about sorting out the toys he had outgrown. For us, the answer for what to do with these items was pretty easy—we just packed them up and sent them to the attic. After all, we’re planning to have another child, and our son’s younger brother or sister can certainly use them.

However, for those of us who use technology, the answer is much more weighty. Do we allow the items that have improved our quality of life to threaten the very health and well being of our environment?

If only the answer were as easy as child’s play.

apple“Apple Cider: Random Squeezings from a Mac user” is copyright © 2000 Tom Iovino,

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