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Are you aware of how free and opensource software reduce pollution?Electronic wasteor "e-waste" is a hugeenvironmental problem. Over250 million computers are sold world-wide every year, withover 70million in theUnited States alone. With mandated lifespans of only three orfouryears in most businesses, tens of millionsof computers reach their "end of life" every year.This equipmentmust be reusedor properly disposed of to avoid environmental contamination.The toxinsin computers include mercury, lead, cadmium, barium,brominated flame retardants (BFRs), beryllium,hexavalent chromium,dioxins, and furans. E-waste isonly 2% of the trash going into America's landfills -- yet it comprisesover70% of the toxins. In the U.S. alone, over 3.2milliontons of electronic waste goes into landfills every year.

E-waste More E-waste Sifting e-waste

What can be done?

The Impact of Planned Obsolescence One way to reduce the numbers of junked computers is simply tokeep machines in service longer.Use them as long as they are useful. Recycle them at theend of their natural lives.Don't prematurely trash them based on arbitrary "replacementschedules" or wheneverMicrosoft comesout with a new operating system.

Vendors in the personal computer business base their businessplans on "plannedobsolescence,"their intent to sell you a new computer running newsoftware every few years -- in spite of the fact that your currentcomputer performs all the same functions. Plannedobsolescence transforms computers fromutilitarian tools into "disposable consumerdevices." This means more electronicsfor thelandfills.

Microsoft orchestratesthis phenomenon. As the monopolistPC software vendor, its plansimpactthe entire industry. The company's annualreportmakes plain that their business strategy depends on plannedobsolescence. Without it, revenues would plummet. As largeand diversified as it is, Microsoft still criticallydepends onupgraderevenue from Windows and Office.

Microsoftimposes planned obsolescence through a variety of tactics. Terminating support for aging systems kills many of them due to the vulnerability of unpatched Windows systems to malware. Microsoft'sbusiness contracts bundle upgradeprovisionsdesigned to ensure that businesses upgrade on Microsoft's schedulerather their own. Businesses paya steep price if theydon'tconform. Finally, Microsoft has added anti-piracy technologies to their products that also serve to limit system lifespan as computersleave their originalowners (eg, WindowsProduction Activation, WindowsGenuine Advantage, and DigitalRights Management).

The ever-increasinghardware requirements for Windows and Office drive plannedobsolescence. Compare Vistato Windows XP:

Official Requirement: Practical Requirement: Windows XP Pentium II @ 300 mhz w/ 128 M Pentium III w/256 M + WindowsVista 1 ghz w/ 512 M (Home Basic) or
1 G (Home Premium, Business, Ultimate, Enterprise) 2 ghz or dual-core w/2 G +

The dramatically increased hardware requirements for Vista over XP meanthat:
  • XP users are forced to purchase new hardware if they wanttorun Vista
  • Those who don't move to Vista face loss of support -- andtheirsystems become vulnerable to malware
    Most important of all,usersgain little benefit for commontaskswhen employing the extra hardware Vista requires. As BillGates once famously admitted,customers don't need to buy new releases of MicrosoftOffice. To quoteMr. Gates, "...ourbiggest competitor is our installed base. You can sit on the existing[products], that's a perfectly legitimate choice."

    What benefits the vendors' bottom line is not good for the environment. Planned obsolescence prematurely junks hardware based onbusiness cyclesrather than user needs. Computer reuse solves this problem.

    Open SourcesMeans AppropriateTechnologyWhileMicrosoft's software is revenue-driven, Linux and open source softwareare technology- and feature- driven. New releases requireheavierhardware -- but only as justified by new features or functions. Some Linux distributions are specificallydesigned forcomputers with lesser resources.

    You can run almostany Linux distribution on a Pentium III computer with 512 M of memoryand obtainreasonable performance. This includes even the "big footprint"distributions like Ubuntu and Fedora. This article wasresearched and written on a 933 mhz P-III with 512 M memory running thelatestUbuntu release. It is my friend's only computer and it performsfine. Acomputer that is laughably obsolete for currentMicrosoft softwareruns well-supported, state-of-the-art Linux, and it performs all thesame tasks.

    Many mainstream Linuxes run fine with any P-III with 256 M. "Smalldistros" like Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux performwell even on the oldest Pentiums. Here are a few Linux distributionsfor older machines:

    High-End: Low-End: PentiumIII + Almost any Linux distro including
    Ubuntu, Fedora, mostothers VectorStandard Edition,
    Wolvix Cub Edition,
    Xubuntu Pentium II Vector Standard Edition,
    Wolvix Cub Edition,
    Puppy Linux
    Damn SmallLinux Pentium I Damn Small Linux Damn Small Linux

    Of course, there are many more Linux distrosthan listed above. These are just those I personallyuse on older hardware.

    Why even mention such antiques as Pentiums II's and I's? Take a Pentium II, max out its memory, install an appropriate version of Linux, and you can perform many useful functions even on this decade-old hardware. Run office software, surf the web, play some board games, and listen to music, for example. (You won't have sufficient processing power to smoothly watch videos.) Use an old P-II as a safe surf-box, an extra machinefor the kids, a backup computer, an X terminal, or as a secondary computer for the basement or garage. They come free.

    What if you try Microsoft software on that old machine?Current products won't install. Out-of-support products like Windows ME/98/95 run great but won'tsurvive if you connect to the internet. Read thisdetailed document on how to secure Windows and you'll see that you must run several different anti-malware products to protect any web-connected Windows computer. This protective software consumes more power than old computers have.

    Linux extends hardware life. Microsoft software curtails it. Open source means useful, supported software on older computers. This slows the disposal rate for older equipment and reduces the e-waste disposal problem.

    Free Geek Shows How
    While many individualsrevitalize old PCs with Linux and free and open source software (FOSS) on their own, business and non-profit organizations do it on an organized basis.

    One example is the non-profit Free Geek. From its locations in a dozen major cities, Free Geek reuses and recycles computer equipment that might otherwise become hazardous waste and makescomputers accessible to those with limited financial means. The group uses this equipment to promote education as well.

    Free Geek receives computer donations from businesses and individuals. Donations are analyzed as to their usefulness. Pentium III's and better are used for building computers to send back into thecommunity for reuse. Older machines are torn down into useful and unusable parts (which are then material-separated and recycled).The result is that all parts that can be reused are, while broken and obsolete parts are recycled in an environmentally responsible manner.

    Free Geek's Reuse / Recycle Process

    Installing Linux on every computer provides several benefits. It protects the data privacy of donations because every hard disk is fully reformatted for use by Linux. This is a clean newinstall of the operating system and all its free bundled applications. This yields a fresh environment with a complete set of commonly-used applications.

    Linux doesn't cost Free Geek anything, important to charities that subsist on donations and unpaid volunteers. Even small up-front costs would limit what the organization could accomplish otherwise.

    Beyond its purchase price, proprietary software such as Windows and Office come with complicated licensing restrictions. For example, to reuse Windows computers requires adequate documentation that the operating system is validly licensed (such as a Microsoft Certificate of Authenticity or equivalent sticker on the box).Linux and FOSS remove this requirement. Open source software also does not present onerous "activation" or onlinevalidation requirements.

    Beyond a firewall, Linux does not require the resource-intensive anti-virus, anti-spyware, and intrusion-detection productsneeded with Windows. This means reasonable performance from older equipment and a simpler,less-complex software environment.

    Finally, Linux and FOSS fit the hardware resources of the reused computers that Free Geek builds. Pentium III's and IV's with at least256 M of memory, 10 G hard drives, CDs, internet connections, sound and video make excellent hosts for Xubuntu Linux. You can do almost anything on these computers you can on a new computer. They run all the common applications.

    Why Xubuntu? Many Linux distros could fulfill Free Geek's goals. Xubuntu is a nice choice because it's the resource-light sibling of the popularUbuntu distribution. Ityields Ubuntu's famous easeof use, while accessing the hugefreeUbuntu software repositories, and the vibrant Ubuntu community'sforums and expertise. Xubuntu offers the advantages of Ubuntu while limiting the resource needs of the operating system.

    The Future?

    The new century presents ever morepressing environmentalchallenges. E-waste disposal tops the list.

    Hardware vendors like Apple,TigerDirect,Gateway,Dell, HP,and othersoffer solutions with their computer trade-in programs.Microsoft chips in with their Microsoft AuthorizedRefurbisher program for large-scale OEMs and their FreshStart program for secondary schools. Both givequalifyingorganizations a way to reuse Windows computers.

    Butwhile these are all good-faith efforts, they hide theiceberg-- the fact that the vendorcommunity bases theirsuccess on a strategy of planned obsolescence. Vendors havea strong, vested financial interest inimposing revenue-driven upgrade cycles on business and consumercomputer purchasers.

    Computerreuse coupled with greenrecycling offers an viable alternative vision. Free andopensource software products like Linux and its bundled applicationsmake computer reuse practical. Leveraging FOSS, businesses andconsumers can upgrade equipment on their own schedules, based on theirown needs. Computers can be used until theybecome obsolete naturally, due to technological and functionaladvances, rather than artificially, because of vendor plans.

    What can you do?Donateyour old computer to a reuse program like Free Geek's, rather thanplacing itcurbside. Participate in reuse and recycling programs.Ask your business, school, or other organization toretire computersbased on their needs rather than vendorschedules. Promote reuse for prematurely retiredcomputers.Recycle what can't bereused.

    Back in the 1950s and 1960s, planned obsolesence pressuredconsumers to buy new automobiles more frequently than they needed.Today the public is more practical about cars. The environment requires that we similarly shift our thinking about computers.

    - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Howard Fosdick is anindependent consultant who supports databases and operatingsystems. He revitalizesolder computers as a hobby and gets them to those of limitedfinancial means. Donate your used computer for reuse at FreeGeek Chicago or otherFree Geek sites.
    Rate This Article: poor excellent
    Comments about this article
    writen by: Ben on 2009-02-12 15:12:09
    Good article. I personally believe Microsoft will have a lot to answer for in the next life when it comes to recycling. Meanwhile this shows what we can all do and how Linux helps us do it.
    RE: na written by Ben:
    Hurray for Free Geek
    writen by: KatieRob on 2009-02-13 14:07:42
    Hurray for Free Geek and all those who are trying to stem the tide of prematurely-retired computers. The article has it exactly right. The vendors do everything they can to junk useful computers while pretending to be green. So you gotta be green yourself!
    RE: Hurray for Free Geek written by KatieRob:
    UK gov't agrees
    writen by: on 2009-05-17 21:40:08
    Reports in the UK over the years such as this one "E-Waste: The Truth About Windows" have long supported the contention that Linux has an important role in reducing pollution. The longer lifecyle for Linux-based systems and the existence of special Linux versions promoting longevity are two key factors. See http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/toxics/e-waste-the-truth-about-windows20071204
    RE: UK gov't agrees written by :
    writen by: SuperTico on 2010-09-23 04:57:54
    I built a custom machine for my fish farm in 2002.
    It's still there, although I'm not, and still fast as hell and unbreakable.
    It runs a Beta of Xandros 2.0
    RE: 2002- written by SuperTico:

    Comment title: * please do not put your response text here