Breathing new life into old computers

October 27, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

I have Eitan Fenson of Transition Palo Alto to blame for the piles of old laptops littering our living room. He’s the one who started me on a voyage of discovery about how to reduce the environmental impact of computers. And how to get unwanted computers into the hands of people who can use them.

Two years ago, he told me how he used dozens of old laptops to set up a phone bank for a local political group (the name of which begins with “D”). Most of us think that a computer built five years ago is “old,” but Eitan showed me that even computers 10 years old have a lot of life left in them.

When I showed interest, Eitan gave me a sample laptop – a Dell D620, a business laptop from 2006. As a former computer tech writer, I was impressed with how well it was built. Not only was it solid as a tank, but it ran flawlessly and was easy to fix.

In the Transition spirit, I began refurbishing laptops myself, converting our dining room table into a workshop:

Image Removed

So far I’ve saved 39 68 laptops from the landfill and given them to individuals and groups. Many more units are in the pipeline.

Good for the environment

Keeping old computers alive is good for the environment. As Jim Lynch of Tech Soup (San Francisco) points out, extending the life of a computer saves 5 to 20 times more energy than recycling it. (“Environmental Case for Refurbished IT Equipment”)

You can drastically reduce the impact of computers by making them last as long as possible. Taking care of your computer means protecting it from liquid spills, physical impacts and, above all, HEAT! Periodically clean the dust from inside your computer, and avoid putting your laptop on fabrics which will restrict the air intake.

Image Removed

When you are finished with your computer, try to pass it on to someone who will use it. Consider giving it away, reselling it, or donating it to someone who will refurbish it.

As a last resort, recycle it. Palo Altans are lucky because electronics can be recycled by putting devices in a recycle bin. Whatever you do, don’t put it in the trash. Electronic devices are full of toxins.

There are many other ways we can make a difference. I hope to be writing more about them in the future. For example:

  • Linux and “free” software. These make it possible to keep old computers alive. Also, learning about Linux is a big step away from being a passive consumer, and taking control of your computing life.
  • Free Geek, headquartered in Portland, is a source of inspiration for community-based programs for refurbishing computers. Resilience partner Peak Moment toured Free Geek and produced this video.
  • Labdoo is an ingenious social network, in which volunteers donate, refurbish and transport laptops to schools across the globe. See "Labdoo’s 5 Step Process to Spread Education " (video).

  • Phil Shapiro, a librarian in the Washington DC area, has been an evangelist for open software as a way to bridge divides and build community.  See his article, "A fast and cheap Linux laptop."   

David Herron of TPA also refurbishes computers – in his case, MacBook Pros. See his article “Save money and the planet, repair/upgrade your old MacBook Pro rather than tossing it to buy a new one.”

Background videos

Annie Leonard (“Story of Stuff”) gives an overview of the problem:


Here’s the story of an old duffer who’s been an inspiration to me … and he seems to be having fun too. (He is no relation.)

First photo: Laptops being refurbished on the living room table (2016). Bart Anderson for Transition Palo Alto

Second photo: Navy technician Latarsha Young displays one of many computers damaged by floodwaters in Millington, Tenn. (2010). Via Wikimedia Commons.  

UPDATE (November 1, 2016)
A local television station, KTVU, reported on call centers for the presidential elections. Many of the laptops shown are ones that Bart refurbished and Eitan deployed. The relevant part of the video starts at 1:00 in:

Bart Anderson

Bart Anderson lives in a small condominium in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since retiring in 2002, he spends most of his time monitoring and writing about peak oil, climate change and sustainability. As energy issues have grown in prominence, he’s had to cut back on his gardening and work in Master Gardeners, as well as the natural history and outdoor activities that he loves. In his previous lives, he was a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard (computer diagnostics and repair), a high school teacher, and a newspaper reporter/editor. He is active in a nascent Transition Palo Alto.