The cost of old vs. new computers

In “Service lives of old computers vs. how much electricity it takes to run them”, ~adiabatic writes:

In some corners of Geminispace, there are people who are interested in Gemini because it doesn’t take much computing oomph to either serve or consume.

That’s me for sure — even though I’m using a standard modern laptop and phone for virtually all my computing right now.

~adiabatic continues:

Old computers, generally speaking, use more power to get the same amount of computation done. I can see why someone might prefer running an old Pentium 4 or a BeBox or Sun workstation or whatever instead of buying a new Raspberry Pi to serve up Gemtext, but if this sort of thing describes you, how much extra would you have to spend in energy costs to keep the old computer running before you give up, recycle the old computer, and buy a new computer that runs at least as fast for a fraction of the electricity use?

This is good thing to keep in mind, but it’s important to point out that we’ve been trained to ignore important considerations when reckoning the “cost” of obtaining (and disposing of) commodities.

Some sources claim that 25% of e-waste is recycled¹ (I’m dubious of whether it’s even that high), which means that most old computers wind up in landfills. “Recycling” old computers is only a little better than throwing them away; in most cases, it means shipping our toxic junk to a poorer country, where a tiny bit is reclaimed, and the process pollutes the local environment. So while you or I don’t *spend any money* to get rid of an old computer, there is a cost that *someone* has to pay, usually the people who live closest to the waste².

There’s also a “carbon cost” of manufacturing a new computer, which nobody is *really* doing anything about. Again, someone in the future is going to pay for it — either by instigating massive sequestration efforts, or (sadly) more likely, suffering the effects of a warming climate.

I think it’s great that new electronics are drawing less power than old ones, and if you need to get a new computer to complete some task, the lower-power the better. However, there are advantages to using what you already have.

¹ “Cleaning Up Electronic Waste”, EPA.

² Ibid.:

We have serious concerns about unsafe handling of used electronics and e-waste, in developing countries, that results in harm to human health and the environment. For example, there are problems with open-air burning and acid baths being used to recover valuable materials from electronic components, which expose workers to harmful substances. There are also problems with toxic materials leaching into the environment. These practices can expose workers to high levels of contaminants such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which can lead to irreversible health effects, including cancers, miscarriages, neurological damage and diminished IQs.