(The Problem with) Old Things

Old computers dump on jubkyard

Old things, while possibly full of historical or sentimental value, pose a serious dilemma: they take up space. Csikszentmihalyi touches on this when he writes that “This proliferation of artifacts would not be a problem were it not for the fact that objects compete with humans for scarce recources in the same ecosystem.”

Mather and Lepawsky show this in their Atlantic article by discussing a specific object, the cathode ray tube, and how its former popularity (proliferation) and current status as an old thing (or junk) cause problems for humans; some of which include that CRTs take up space (by being stashed in warehouses) and pollute the earth (by leaking toxic chemicals into groundwater and creating breeding grounds for new bacteria).

This of course has effects on areas of study that focus on the earth and its processes such as geology, ecology, and biology. So, in effect, how we treat old objects goes beyond just having a personal attachment to an item and can have profound impacts on the world around us.

An obvious solution to this would be recycling (Mather and Lepawsky do touch on this), however, recycling e-waste is not as easily done as recycling other types of waste such as aluminum cans, paper, and plastics.

According to this HowStuffWorks article, an item can either be down-cycled, used to make something of inferior quality, or up-cycled, used to make something of superior quality. But the possibility of up or down-cycling depends on the object and e-waste products typically have so many parts (many of which unfortunately are toxic) they usually can neither be down or up-cycled, only being able to be used for spare parts for other e-waste products like them. And of course, this leads to many parts still going unused. Furthermore, recycling e-waste presents other unique challenges; mainly that recycling items such as CRT’s can be quite labor intensive and costly.

Largescale e-waste recycling efforts do have constraints; however, another option is to promote more local recycling efforts. An example of a more localized kind of recycling is household based recycling, which was quite common throughout human history. Even now household recycling is common, for example what writer Dayo Olopade calls the African tradition of kanju (“specific creativity born from difficulty”) where people take ordinary old things and repurpose them, like making crafts out of discarded objects. Maybe, this is more achievable with things like rope, clothes, and bottles, however, old e-waste products such as TVs, computers, and smartphones need not go to waste. You do not need to make crafts out of smartphones (although you can and that might be interesting), but there are ways to recycle that are more local. For example, you can recycle it back into your community. An example of this is the South Dekalb Computer Cooperative, which is a program that teaches students how to fix broken devices and after fixing a device they get to keep it. More programs like these would be a great way to recycle e-waste.

Anyway, to conclude, although recycling old things (mainly electronics) presents problems, it is still worth it. Perhaps the solution to the problems of old things can be solved by taking a lesson from kanju and encouraging organizations and individuals to get a little more creative in how they responsibly deal with the things they throw away.


3 Replies to “(The Problem with) Old Things”

  1. I love that you incorporated ways to recycle non-traditionally-recycled objects! I have bookmarked this article to come back to & to show family members that it’s time to let go of certain things as they are harming the earth we stand on. The linked kanju concept as an alternative to the costly & labor intensive route doesn’t give people the excuse to keep these objects lying around if they can’t afford to recycle them; even if they’re local (South dekalb option). I’m a huge advocate for the concepts in this article. Awesome job!

  2. Bringing up recycled objects is interesting because a recycled object has a very different meaning to people than non-recycled objects. A recycled object communicates that the object’s previous owner valued being environmentally friendly. While the specific type of object being analyzed will have its own meaning, the recycled material which it is composed of will add a deeper level of complexity to that meaning and give a broader view of the object’s history.

  3. The ideas of recycling tech waste or outdated tech touch on a lot of the emotional and personal meanings we assign to objects.
    For example, many people have old computers (or even just the old parts of computers) because they’re afraid of what information is on them and how that information could be used. Of course, it’s just the idea of vulnerability that is intimidating enough to shock these people into hoarding tendencies. If we were to realize what information was actually on the parts and whether it was even feasibly usable in the modern market, a lot of those parts are likely to go away. Of course, there is also the consideration that the parts could be manipulated to not have the information accessible anymore, like from HBO’s Silicon Valley where they drill a hole into the hard drive to stop competitors’ access to information.

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