Tech Recycling

June 30, 2009

In a previous post, concerning a hard drive full of confidential material that some PBS researchers had bought in a market in Ghana, I touched on the issue of hi-tech rubbish disposal.  Some of it is shipped to other countries (as was the errant disk drive), where less-stringent environmental rules make disposal cheaper, sometimes at the expense of local people’s health.  But some of it ends up, with ordinary household trash, in landfills, where its content of heavy metals and other toxins can leach into the ground water.

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article  describing some recent attempts, by state and local governments, to address this problem:

Since 2004, 18 states and New York City have approved laws that make manufacturers responsible for recycling electronics, and similar statutes were introduced in 13 other states this year. The laws are intended to prevent a torrent of toxic and outdated electronic equipment — television sets, computers, monitors, printers, fax machines — from ending up in landfills where they can leach chemicals into groundwater and potentially pose a danger to public health.

The size of the potential problem is staggering; according to the article, the EPA estimates that there are more than 99 million old TV sets mouldering away in cupboards and basements in the US.

Many of the programs involve the establishment of drop-off sites, where consumers can bring their old tech-junk to be recycled.  It appears that these are generally well received; in fact, some of the sites are nearly overwhelmed by the volume of material, especially in their early days of operation:

“We were getting 18 semi loads a day when the program first started,” said Craig Lorch, owner of Total Reclaim, a warehouse on the south edge of Seattle that is among the collection points.

Maine has been running a program since 2004, and is currently collecting about four pounds of E-trash per capita each year.  This program has some capacity for financing part of its cost, since many electronic devices contain precious metals (e.g., gold, silver, platinum) that can be easily re-sold, and some parts that can be refurbished and reused.

Some of the manufacturers are complaining about the cost of the program, nevertheless:

Manufacturers say a reasonable rate for collection and processing of waste is 25 to 30 cents a pound. Still it is more than they say they can recoup from reselling the metals they harvest, particularly for televisions.

This really is, to a considerable extent, beside the point.  Before the advent of regulations making the manufacturers responsible for recycling the equipment, they, and consumers, were in effect receiving a hidden subsidy from everyone else.   The disposal costs of the toxic waste were borne by everyone, not by the people that make and use the equipment.  (As I’ve discussed before, these economic externalities are common when pollution of various kinds is at issue.) Absent the regulation, the direct cost to the manufacturer of reducing the waste disposal problem significantly exceeded the direct benefit.  The goal of regulation should be to re-shape these incentives:

Carole A. Cifrino, the environmental specialist who manages Maine’s e-waste program, said she hoped the strict recycling would eventually prompt manufacturers to rethink their designs.

“Maybe since they have some responsibility for the cleanup,” Ms. Cifrino said, “it will motivate them to think about how you design for the environment and the commodity value at the end of the life.”

Historically, the ability to generate rubbish has basically been free. It is becoming more and more apparent that it has a real cost, and it’s important that the cost be borne by those who can do something about the underlying problem.

New Earth Map

June 30, 2009

The BBC has a story today about the publication of a new topographic map of the Earth.  This map is notable for a few reasons:

  • It covers more of the Earth’s surface (99%) than any previous map
  • It has a higher resolution than previous maps, using about 1.3 million images to produce a data grid with points just 30 meters apart.
  • It was produced as a cooperative venture between NASA and the Japanese trade ministry.
  • Best of all, the map will be available for free download.

The best previous map was less accurate, and only covered about 80% of the Earth’s surface.

The underlying data was collected by an instrument called ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer); NASA’s page relating to this project is here.

Mozilla Releases Firefox 3.5

June 30, 2009

Back on June 22, I posted a note on my testing of the Release Candidate for Mozilla Firefox® 3.5.  Today, the Mozilla Foundation has released the production version of 3.5.  The press release gives an overview of the changes from previous releases (if you adjust as usual for the use of language in press releases).  The Release Notes give, as usual, the technical summary.  Versions of Firefox 3.5 for Linux, Mac OS-X, and Windows, in 70+ languages, can be downloaded here.

I have been using the Release Candidate version for a couple of weeks now, and haven’t encountered any significant issues so far.  As I noted in the “preview” post, the new version does appear to be noticeably faster, especially for JavaScript-intensive sites (such as or Facebook).

Update, Tuesday, June 30, 14:35

There’s a review of Firefox 3.5, by Farhad Manjoo, on Slate.  He focuses particularly on some of the changes related to the HTML 5 standard for audio and video.

iPod v. Walkman

June 30, 2009

The BBC’s News Magazine has an entertaining article on the results of a comparative test of old and new technology.  The Sony Walkman® was introduced 30 years ago, while Apple’s iPod® is, of course, relatively recent. The magazine persuaded 13-year-old Scott Campbell to swap his iPod for a week, to try out a Walkman.

Scott’s first reaction was to the size of the Walkman:

My dad had told me it was the iPod of its day.

He had told me it was big, but I hadn’t realised he meant THAT big. It was the size of a small book.

Of course the Walkman is bigger, a fact amplified by comparison to the iPod.  It occurred to me to wonder how Scott would react to seeing my TEAC reel-to-reel studio recorder; it’s bigger than the Manhattan White Pages, and considerably heavier.

Not unusally for a teenage user, fashion was something of a consideration:

It comes with a handy belt clip screwed on to the back, yet the weight of the unit is enough to haul down a low-slung pair of combats.

But the most amusing part, to me, was the cross-generational conflict of assumptions that Scott sometimes had to overcome.  For example, he didn’t initially realize that the cassette tape had two sides (and therefore had to be flipped in the Walkman model he was using, which didn’t have auto-reverse).  An artifact of the difference between two recording technologies (ordinary and CrO2 recording tape) also proved a bit puzzling:

I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.

It’s a funny reminder of how something that seems completely obvious at one time (like the function of that switch — having lived through the switch to cassette tapes, I knew at once what it was) can be close to opaque not very much later.   There are lots of other everyday candidates for this kind of puzzlement: I wonder how long it will be before the phrase “a broken record” becomes mysterious.

I had a similar experience a few years ago, when I had just moved into a new office, and was unpacking a carton of old stuff.  One of the things in the carton happened to be my trusty Keuffel & Esser slide rule.  A younger colleague of mine asked, “What’s that?”   On being told that, “It’s a slide rule, silly,” he told me he had never seen one before.  So I showed it to him, and explained the basics of how it worked (by adding logarithms); he was then really impressed, because I actually knew how to use it.

Looking around me, I can see some other possibilities, too.  Computer techonology is too easy a target, like shooting fish in a barrel, but there are others.   There is my Hermes portable typewriter, which I got when I was in high school.  There is the aforementioned TEAC tape deck.  And, in some ways perhaps most potentially puzzling of all, my old Exacta 35mm SLR, which is not only a film camera, but was manufactured in East Germany, “die sogennante DDR”.   Oh, and I still have my little portable Toshiba cassette player.

Here is part of Scott’s conclustion, in case there are some of you that don’t feel quite old enough yet:

Personally, I’m relieved I live in the digital age, with bigger choice, more functions and smaller devices. I’m relieved that the majority of technological advancement happened before I was born, as I can’t imagine having to use such basic equipment every day.


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