I just bought a new computer. There are Five in our house now. My office has four which consits of one desktop (actually my wife's, but it has been commandeered) and three laptops. One of those laptops is the first computer I bought, back in 2003. I didn't need one before that it seems. Anyway, this first computer is important. By today's standards it is slow, with a tiny hard drive and an outdated operating system. But it works. And I still use it. I record and edit audio on it. It's hooked up to my stereo equipment permanently and before stealing my wife's desktop I had my scanner running through it too. I don't want to get rid of it precisely because it still works and it gets used.
Besides, it eases my conscience to keep it running as I know E-waste is a big problem. The waste we produce is a big issue for me, for many reasons, and is one of the things about my lifestyle that really bothers me on a daily basis.
Obsolete technology often gets dumped. Some of it ends up far from where it was used. This past Sunday the NY Times published a few photos from a series by Pieter Hugo form a dump in Ghana where some of the residents of a slum named Agbogbloshie break apart these abandoned machines to access the mineral components. In the process, they cause a huge amount of pollution, hazardous to themselves and the environment.
Edward Burtynsky documented a similar activity in China, where rural villagers sifted through mounds of electronic waste. One village featured in the series so polluted it's own water source that it now has to import it's water from elsewhere.
I used to think that when you sent something to be recycled that is was processed through a gleaming technologically efficient plant, with minimal harm to the workers or the environment. The truth is far from that. We as consumers have a a huge responsibility. We buy more than we need. We buy things that are produced at great human and environmental cost and then we dump all that stuff somewhere out of sight and don't give a damn about what happens to it. For years I've thought about exploring recycling in the west. I used to work in a big company in London. We produced a huge amount of waste. For a while I had some management responsibilities for one of the company's departments. I remember calling Westminster council to try and arrange some recycling and was told, bluntly, that Westminster did not recycle. They did not have the facilities and I would have to arrange it through a private company.
In New York, I know a lot of Manhattan's waste gets dumped in the Bronx, where some of it is recycled. There are a lot of health problems in the South Bronx directly related to this.
In New Jersey, where I live, there are miles and miles of artificial hills I was told are full of landfill. I can only imagine what is lying in wait under that topsoil.
Even when we think we are disposing of something responsibly the truth is that often what we think happens is far from the reality.
I remember a wonderful story a colleague once told me. He was living in a flat above a pub. Every night after the pub closed the employees dutifully (and noisily) separated the brown, green and clear glass from the aluminum cans and deposited them (noisily) into the correct bins at the rear of the pub for recycling. in the middle of the night, the rubbish collectors arrived and (very noisily) dumped all the bins into one huge bin on the truck.
My colleague considered telling the pub employees not to bother with their ritual as for one, the bottles and cans were probably going to a landfill anyway and secondly, he would sleep better without all that noise.
Our world is one of over production and over consumption, of quick obsolescence and inconsiderate disposal. I am guilty of perpetrating that for sure. Hugo and Burtynsky show us some of the consequences of our actions. That is why, even though a new computer just arrived in my office, the first one I bought is staying. As long as it works that is. After that, it will be my responsibility to dispose of it properly. Burning it in Ghana or having it pollute a Chinese village's water source does not sound like a very attractive option.