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Friday, March 1, 2013

Why Repurpose Technology

As we barrel along on this little planet called Earth, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger impacts of our actions.  Take technology.  When I was a lad, I recall having the same telephone for years, decades actually.  You'd purchase one of these devices, plug it into the socket in your wall and use it without trouble for a lifetime.  I still have some of those phones, and they still work. 

My, how different technology is today.  You are lucky to get five years of use out of a modern phone "system."  You know these things.  They consist of a base with several satellite cordless phones you distribute around your home.  Sadly, they seem to die early deaths for reasons I cannot comprehend. Or take a mobile phone.  Here we get tremendous media pressure to upgrade every two years.  We do this, like automatons, despite the one-time costs and the long-term contracts.  Then there are computers, laptops, tablets, flat screens, gaming consoles, mp3 players, and the list goes on.  How many of these do we purchase in a lifetime?

How often do you think about what happens to these devices when their all-too-short life comes to a crashing end?  Has this ever influenced a purchase decision?  Are we religious about disposing of these things in environmentally friendly ways?  Have you ever thought about recycling?

The experts and policymakers call this e-waste, and it is becoming a huge problem.  These devices of modern convenience contain heavy metals and other toxic substances that we just don't want hanging around. 

Thankfully, there are people and organizations looking at this "problem" and seeing the opportunity.  Many of the devices that we outgrow still function, so why not see if they can be repurposed? If not, perhaps some of the materials are valuable enough to be recycled. 

Consider a computer.  A typical machine is considered to have a useful life of five, and in some applications only three, years.  The reason?  Software rapidly consumes and outgrows the constraints of the hardware.  Perhaps the storage gets used up, or maybe the processor is too slow.  What's amazing, and perhaps not known by all, is that there are still a lot of ways to use this computer short of sending it to the dump.  Unfortunately, with the complexity of these systems and the cost of technical assistance, its increasingly easier to purchase a new machine than fiddle with the old.  So, we discard.  Yet, that same old machine could find use in a number of lower-demand applications.

While we continue replacing our devices, we in the Hartford area live just a few miles from people who do not have regular access to computers or high speed internet connections -- even in 2013!  We often hear about it as the digital divide, and we talk about it in relation to Connecticut's nation-leading educational "achievement gap".  What a dubious honor for the wealthiest state in the union!

An organization like Greenshare Technology can help.  Greenshare has designed programs to take unwanted technology and limit its environmental impact while, at the same time, finding ways of redeploying it to underserved populations.  Whether it needs an upgrade, new software, or just needs to be recycled, Greenshare will take the best course of action.  What's even more exciting, is that the end-product has economic value, perhaps another 5 years of useful life in the case of a computer.  Greenshare may sell some of these machines at market rates to people who can afford them, and it may discount others to folks who can't.  This is what social enterprise is all about, using market forces to do social good.  And what could be better than saving our world from our electronic clutter?

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