Free to a Good Home: Junk

I was pricing a low-end desktop computer the other day. When configuring it, I noticed that if I added a four-year warranty, it would cost more than the entire system! We've really come to the point where computer hardware is like a plastic fork. If a tine breaks off, it gets thrown away. Sadly, although throwing away plastic forks is rough on the environment, used computers are so much more so.

Thankfully, green is the new pink, and everyone seems to be interested in conservation and recycling. The problem is it's easier to talk about recycling computer hardware than to do it. I work at a school district, and we have a closet full of old CRT monitors just waiting for an opportunity to be recycled. There aren't any recycling places in our area, and thanks to the lead and glass, CRT monitors are very expensive to ship. So, they sit in a closet collecting dust.

Some amazing organizations out there are working hard to focus on another R, and rather than recycling old equipment, they reuse it. Places like Free Geek in Portland, which I had the pleasure of touring last summer, take donated computer parts to create usable systems that are sold or donated back to the community. Thanks to Linux, those systems aren't encumbered with licensing issues. It's really a great way to get working, viable, stable computer systems in the hands of people who would likely never be able to afford one.

Although I'm not suggesting everyone should start a local Free Geek (although how cool would that be!), it's possible someone in your area already is doing something similar. Before you put that 17" CRT monitor and Pentium II computer on the curb, try giving it away in the local newspaper. If you like the idea of building computers for those in need, consider doing a small-scale version of Free Geek in your garage. Don't worry about running out of hardware, the local school district likely has computer parts piled in closets it would love for you to “recycle”. With the power and flexibility of Linux, and the steady supply of aging computers, perhaps the path to world domination is by repurposing last year's Windows computers!


Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.


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Caveats, and a mixed success story in NC

R O's picture

I sent this as a "letter to the editor" before spotting that this article was online with feedback, so here is the letter (ignore it for that other venue, please).

A good concept, and some responses:
1. I understand that you want to support sister print media (newspapers), but realistically, it makes more sense to "get with the times", and offer the equipment in the free and computer sections of Craigslist if you are in one of their covered markets. Although some papers do not charge for advertising free stuff, still, more tech-oriented people look to CL first.

2. If giving away PC's (desktop or notebook), in the process of wiping your info from the hard drive (good idea!), install one of the more common linux mini distros.

I have found most of the current mainstream distros are almost as bad as Vista in hardware demands, and will not install (or run well if they can be installed) on many of the older PC's that folks would want to give away.

Also, many of the distros, large and small, are challenged with supporting the huge variety of devices in x86 PC's, especially notebooks, so it may not always be possible to advance the OSS cause this way.

3. A mixed success story for re-use (free PC's to needy kids, but all Windows) is happening in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill "Research Triangle" of North Carolina, a huge techie area. The Kramden Institute ( is a non-profit that has collected and refurbished over 3,000 PC's which they have given to needy middle and high-school students in the area. I think they have gone as far afield as military families at nearby Fort Bragg (yes, many of them are needy unfortunately). Aside from their Windows-centric bias, they are having an impact with PC re-use. It seems that M$ offers them sweetheart bulk OS licensing deals that have gone from Win 2000 to XP last I knew (I do not know if they have "progressed" to Vista, but I see now they want at least a 700 Mhz CPU for donated systems vs the original 300 or so) . Despite their inclusion of OpenOffice in the PC build, my efforts a few times to interest them in using something like Puppy Linux for lower end PC's otherwise inadequate for Windows, has not gotten anywhere.

As for energy impact, these machines might be somewhat less energy efficient, but we can hope the kids will be enabled to be more successful in school, and will give back in the course of their future careers with technical (or other socially useful) contributions as a result, where they might otherwise be discouraged for lack of the PC/tool they might not have been able to afford - be optimistic.

Throw Aways

ScottF's picture

Alvin Toffler strikes!

In his book "Power Shift", Toffler suggested that we are becoming a "Throw Away" society. If something doesn't work, we turf it and buy another. Think about iPods on that last statement.

I agree about the idea that re-using a inefficient PC is a bad idea. Isn't this the same idea with carbon capture? Push off the problem to someone/something else.

Buy used

Anonymous's picture

If you can buy a used computer, then that's one less headed to the garbage heap. The last time I bought a new computer was 1996. Since then I've built two from a combination of new and old parts, and I've bought 7 used ones from company surplus stores. Typically the used ones are about 3 years old and were top of the lines workstations. My price? $20/ea. They had small hard drives with Windows installed. But, I know how to make repairs to fix those problems. Eventually, I end up taking things to Free Geek. I had to take an ISA based computer there last year, a used one I bought in 1997 actually.

What if someone would take your old stuff for free?

Anonymous's picture

Someone will. Just join your local FreeCycle group. You can get rid of a lot more than just used computers. I don't work for them. I'm just a happy FreeCycler.

CRTs Recycle in Oregon USA

Anonymous's picture

CRTs are now recyclable items in Oregon, whether they are television sets or computer monitors. Here's the story

cost of recycling

Anonymous's picture

recycling won't be cost effective until the alternative costs too much.

so, we're paying too little for our existing technology.

just like we're paying too little for gasoline

Personal attacks

Anonymous's picture

Some people are above personal attacks and some are not, isnt that right medicdave !!

As for the 2 Tons of raw material used to make a PC thats very interesting ! I would like to know your source for this information? By RAW do you mean Iron Ore, sand etc or do you mean Steal, gold, silicon and if that was the case then a PC should weight more than they do.

Sure you may be including the CO2 produced by the energy used.

My research so far shows me it takes about 430 KW/h of energy to manufacture a PC and about the same value (420KW/h) to use the same computer 3 hours per day for 3 years.

based on 1.5 pound of CO2 per KW/h (2 for coal, 1 for natural gas)

would be around 850 x 1.5lb = 1275lb of CO2 to MAKE and USE the PC for 3 years.

I would like to know how much less the cost of extraction of the raw materials is by recycling the PC (pound for pound Ewaste has more gold that material from a gold mine (on average).

Anyone who runs a server farm knows there is a break point when its simply not worth keeping an old computer running as the throughput is simply not economocial due to the power consumption Vs processing done.

So its certainly not clear cut what way is good, but I dont think this should be anything to do with OS's or a way to push Linux over Windows or any such thing.

For home use, windows or Linux is adequate its just personal preference.
And if your talking about 3 years old PC's they will easily be able to run XP or Linux with CPU cycles to spare.
(BTW: Viruses, malware, spyware on Windows is not a problem virtually every windows user knows this and see's the Linux communities attempts to push this line as sad).

If you cant get windows clean, stable and secure in 5 minutes you should not be in the game, and certainly should not be claiming you are computer skilled, after all who would take the advice of someone who cant get Windows stable and secure to use Linux ?

You would be far better off accepting that Windows is not that bad, but linux is a free and as good alternative.

Saying bad things about the opposition seems to stem from the US political system, and its just looks bad there too.

So anyway, its all good and can I please have some more details and if anyone else would like to crunch the numbers and provide more details about the raw material usage that would be good.

I dont have any issues with putting computing power in the hands of many.

I do have issue with personal attacks for no reason.


"(BTW: Viruses, malware,

Anonymous's picture

"(BTW: Viruses, malware, spyware on Windows is not a problem virtually every windows user knows this and see's the Linux communities attempts to push this line as sad)."

In a broader perspective it does seem to be a problem. An estimated 1 million computers are running on Windows 98 world wide. Any exploitable holes will not be fixed, nøw that support has been withdrawn. So there's a million botnet hosts right there. To keep XP secure, one must have a registered version to receive Service Packs. There are probably hundreds of thousands of pirated versions in the world, giving another tranch of botnet hosts.

2 examples

Anonymous's picture

I have 2 examples of re-use of computers that would have been discarded this week. A friend of mine was given a laprop and a desktop system. The laptop had a bad power supply, and one of the keys on the keyboard was not working properly. The desktop had a very noisy power supply fan, and its 80 gig hard drive was failing (beginning to have bad sectors).

My friend had me get him a new power supply ($12.95 with free shipping on eBay), and I fixed the key (it only needed snapped back on correctly). I replaced the power supply fan in the desktop with the same size fan salvaged from a bad power supply, and I replaced the failing hard drive with a 40 gig Western Digital drive salvaged from a defunct system.

Both com[uters are working just fine with sidux (GNU/Linux) installed. The laptop is an HP Pavillion ze4900 with a P4 1.3 Ghz processor and 40 gig hard drive. The desktop (which my friend gave me for helping woth the laptop) is a Compaq with a 1.8 Ghz processor, and 512 meg of DDR ram. Bothj computers are quite usable for any number of tasks.

BTW, I completely approve of the Helios project, and am doing something similar inmy own small way.

So don't try to discourage those who would rather re-use computers and computer components rather than recycle them, or even worse just add them to the local landfill!

Worth a mention...

medicdave's picture

Another great charity project that's definitely worth a mention is The Helios Initiative, run by Linux advocate Ken Starks. He operates out of the greater Austin, TX area and takes in donated hardware to be refurbed and placed at households that couldn't otherwise afford a computer. Last year, the project placed more PCs than there were days in the year, a monumental effort for a small, part-time, 100%-volunteer team!

False economy!

Anonymous's picture

All you are doing is putting PC's that are not operating, and have been replaced by more efficient PC's back on the power grid as more loads and waste.

Its not "green" to put a PC with low CPU cycles / watt of power used back into circulation.

Old CRT monitors are very power hungry, and will consume lots of power in operating as opposed to efficient LCD displays and modern power supplies and high performance CPU in modern equipment.

So you are giving people PC's that consume lots of power for little processing power. You're not placing those old systems for recycling !!.

Sure you can put Linux on them, and they are usable for some simple applications but this is not the answer, plus its clear that Linux is not really up to mainstream tasks, and is not popular.

New PC's with very low power consumption and high performance are very very cheap.

It would not take that many years using a high performance PC with LCD display to save the money you would waste on the power consumption from your old revived junker.

And let me guess, you drive your car to the computer swap meet moving several tonnes of steal powered by rotten wood to move a couple hundred pouds of person to a place.

The sooner it becomes illegal to use fossel fuel for power generation (including cars) the better off well all be.

Please do the math on these schemes before promoting them as a "feel good" concept.
You might just find out your doing more damage than good.

Let me add one more piece of

T. D.'s picture

Let me add one more piece of information to the previous 2 excellent replies to this poster. Many times perfectly good PCs are tossed, not because the hardware has stopped working, but because the software has -- in other words the computer is no longer useful because of virus and malware problems. I teach middle school in the inner city and I have had numerous students tell me that their families have computers, but they no longer work. The most common reason given is viruses. Often these computers are running pirated Windows application software. Typically the trial security suite has been allowed to expire. Yes there are free anti virus programs available, such as AVG, but finding them requires some effort and a little computer savvy. Instead of fixing the broken computer, the families just wait until they can afford to buy another one. Then the cycle starts all over again.

Taking this perfectly good hardware and putting a secure modern OS like Linux on them stops this cycle. The software is free and legal, more than up to every mainstream task, except possibly for gaming, and is at least as easy to use. Furthermore it is far easier to maintain than Windows. The only harm done is Microsoft sells fewer licenses, botnet criminals have fewer computers to take over, and computer manufacturers sell fewer computers. The benefits to computer users and the environment are indisputable.

Don't worry about that electricity....

J S's picture

You better toss that toaster out. And the microwave. And turn off your TV set.

Computers consume much more energy in construction and transport than they will in actual use.

The average computer system takes TWO TONS of raw materials to build it. That's mining, fabrication, transformation, AND RECYCLING! And those materials are not very friendly - lead, chrome, arsenic, etc etc. Recycling methods pull gold and other metals out of a soup of sulfuric acid 'leaching' fields (picture lawn sprinklers over a big open field of stuff to be leached).

So the least energy intensive and environmental impact method is to strip off bloated virus infected operating systems, replace broken components, and reinstall with fresh copies of Linux (if Microsoft can keep up maybe their next Windows 7 will be slimmer).

While I'd like a shiny new Netbook, I use a 1999 HP Pentium3 laptop (with half the specs of a Netbook) running Xubuntu and Open Office to give Engineering presentations to Fortune 10 companies. My main work system is a 2003 Pentium4 system running Xubuntu 8.04. Both of these were broken boxes that I repaired for new real work.

On weekends I refurbish older unwanted and discarded PCs and sell (I have to fund buying bulk ram and HDDs for repairs) or give away. I get calls from small businesses or people that have upgraded and don't want to landfill or recycle.

Sometimes it helps to look at the big picture

medicdave's picture

I have to shake my head when I see views posted that are as narrow-minded as this. Just as there are certainly some vocal Linux zealots out there, unafraid to tear down others and leave a path of ignorance and misinformation in their wake, the breadth and depth of environmental zealotry must be tenfold. (As an aside, your poor spelling and grammar would seem to indicate that you're a youngster, in which case I must apologize that our nation's miserable education system has spent more time indoctrinating you on an environmental jihad than teaching you how to write.)

Admittedly, older computer hardware does indeed consume more Watts-per-useful-function than newer, slicker, more-expensive hardware. But you're neglecting the efficiency differences in the software that's being run. Linux, which is far from being "not really up to mainstream tasks" as you claim, requires fewer CPU cycles to perform the same tasks than does Windows. Many variants of Linux (i.e. Xubuntu, Puppy Linux, and several others) are specifically optimized to run quickly and responsively on older hardware. We're not talking about 386s here - in many cases, the repurposed PCs are powered by >1GHz Pentium 3 and even Pentium 4 processors. These are perfectly capable of being speed- (and power-) scaled by the excellent Linux power management code when the CPU loading is light - so for equivalent levels of functionality, running Linux will actually consume less power than Windows on the same hardware.

Looking at the even-bigger picture, you're neglecting what the repurposing of these PCs does for the recipient, as well as for the nation as a whole. By getting gently-used computers into the hands of those who couldn't otherwise afford a new one, efforts like Free Geek and The Helios Initiative improve peoples' economic situations. A PC at home is more than a portal to games and MySpace - its a way for schoolkids to stay competitive with their fiscally-advantaged classmates, and in our increasingly (although sorely tardy) digitized education system, they can be the only way to complete some assignments. That PC can also streamline the process of finding employment, interacting with government, and accessing adult education.

Want to look at an even bigger picture? I'm guessing you don't, but for the benefit of others subjected to your rhetoric, I'll continue. Sadly, recycling of PC hardware isn't always a rosy picture. For one thing, lead reclaimation is an extremely dirty and expensive process. Electronics recyclers consume massive amounts of energy to operate furnaces and equipment to separate the hazardous (i.e. Lead, Hexavalent Chromium, etc.) elements of PCs from the inert (i.e. fiberglass, non-heavy metals) and the precious (i.e. Silver and Gold). Since this isn't economical to do in developed countries, the job is often outsourced to India and China, where the dangerous processes and hazardous materials are uncontrolled, and the children employed to do the work are exposed to dangerous substances and awful working conditions. In the rest of the world, far more PCs end up in landfills than recycling facilities. From there, their Lead, Mercury, Chromium and other hazardous content can leech into water supplies, rivers and other sensitive environments. Whether this is a significant pollution source is debatable, but it's certainly clear that it's uncontrolled.

Which brings me to my concluding point: repurposing of used computer hardware is the best way to control and contain its environmental impact. Yes, there are certainly some good recycling places out there - but uncontrolled recycling burns fossil fuels transporting the e-waste to developing nations, where it contributes to worker exploitation and dirty demanufacturing processes. Landfills are a more passive approach, but ultimately the leech-out effects of e-waste are still becoming apparent. On the other hand, if we put this perfectly-functional e-waste to good use, we constrain its environmental impact to something we can control - the end user, and the power grid. We can encourage end users to turn off their PCs and monitors when they're not using them (as Linux's fast boot times require less patience while powering up/down) and we can make our grid more efficient - a task upon which thousands of engineers, planners and public policymakers are already hard-at-work.

cost of recycling

Anonymous's picture

recycling won't be cost effective until the alternative costs too much.

so, we're paying too little for our existing technology.

just like we're paying too little for gasoline