Recycling and Freecycling Information Technology

[Editor's note: You can join Terry Calhoun at the all-new IT Trends Forum by clicking here.]

A crazy person collected 14,000 computer keyboards.

Not me, not me. I'm not that crazy. Years ago when my kids were little and I was their primary care giver, I  learned that I could make them very happy on a Friday by taking them "yard sailing," and letting each of them spend a dollar or two on whatever they wanted to buy and bring home. We did this so consistently, that I often bumped into some of the serious collectors of things in the area, who kept asking me, "What do you collect?"

Eventually I decided to collect something I felt was interesting, with historical significance, and that might end up being an investment toward my retirement. My personal collection of slide rules now numbers 223. Stan Flouride, however, the "crazy person" referred to in the title, collected 14,000 computer keyboards. Why? Well, you can either Google him and find out that way, or read on, and I'll tell you what he did with those keyboards.

I hate throwing things away. The architect/designer Bill McDonough points out in his trademark, audience-rousing speech, that the phrase "throw away" never really did have any meaning. Little did I know as I traveled back and forth from Vietnam in the late 1960s, being sent day after day to the back of my ship, the USS Comstock, to throw things "away" ...  into the ocean. (The ship was named after the Comstock Lode, a hugely "successful" silver mine in Nevada, whose silver mining legacy is a major toxic dump.) McDonough says, "Where is away?" Think about that. "Where is away?" He points out that there is no such thing as "waste" in nature, as well. One thing's waste is another thing's raw materials or fuel.

McDonough posits a future where entire industries create things out of sets of chemicals that are used to manufacture things in ways that ensure a 100 percent recapturing of those chemicals at the end of the products' lifecycles. The chemicals are then reused. No waste. He calls it "cradle to cradle," and explains, "This approach models human industry on the integrated processes of nature's biological metabolism--its productive ecosystems--by developing an equally effective technical metabolism, in which the materials of human industry flow safely and productively."

I also love "old" things. Something tells me that as the world's population grows, almost any of the older things that are not incinerated or end up in land fills will become valuably rare. One story I read in the late 1990s posited a future wherein the heroine was confronting "the richest old man in the world." He was fondling a real wooden object, and at one point she reaches out to touch it and he grabs it away. She asks what it is, and he tells her that it is a slide rule, valuable beyond imagining--as an artifact of old technology. (I liked that scene!)

I recall another old science fiction story from the 1960s, which began with a subterranean scene in London, where a troop of Boy Scouts was engaged in an exercise to find deposits of mercury that had pooled in the lowest places available. In that particular hypothesized future, mercury was scarce and valuable.

That may not be true of intact personal computers due to their relative abundance. On the other hand, more consumers and manufacturers are recognizing the dangers of the downstream toxic waste flow from abandoned computers. The work, by companies such as Hewlett Packard, to ensure that their components are recycled, may some day lead to a scarcity of older machines that are neither deep in a landfill leaking poisons nor taken apart and recycled for their internal components.

Colleges and universities are also taking a lead in finding a better way to get rid of used information technology equipment. My alma mater and employer, the University of Michigan, has a leading-edge program. There are quite a few resources on recycling in the Educause resource archives.

So, "love old things" and "hate throwing things away." Hmm. Most of us do, if we bother to think about it. That's probably one of the reasons for the new variant of eBay and Craig's List called Freecycle. As I write this, there are 3,900 local Freecycle groups: "The Freecycle Network was started in May 2003 to promote waste reduction in Tucson's downtown and help save desert landscape from being taken over by landfills. [It] provides individuals and non-profits an electronic forum to 'recycle' unwanted items. One person's trash can truly be another's treasure!"

So, what did Stan Flouride (AKA Kevin Kearney) do with his 14,000 keyboards? He removed the keys and--like many of us do with magnetic alphabet characters with our refrigerators--he used the keys to make words and phrases as he completely covered a car with them.

Did the parts of the keyboards that Stan did not use end up in a landfill somewhere? I hope not. He's quoted as saying: "I'm all about recycling." Let's make sure our computers don't end up in a landfill. We can do better than that. Just like most of us now capture and recycle the used engine oil from our cars, instead of pouring it "away" down the drain into our local watersheds, we need to take responsibility for ensuring that our personal computers don't end up poisoning someone else's water or soil.

The future is here: Many people already do this. But it's unevenly distributed: Most don't. Are you part of the future?
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