E-waste collection in Townsville

We throw out a lot of junk. Some of it peacefully decomposes without any further impact on the environment but some of it is quite toxic. One particular category is both highly toxic and, ironically, full of valuable materials: junked technical gear, or e-waste. That gives us two good reasons to dispose of it as thoughtfully as possible. An excellent article on Gizmodo begins:

The brand new tablet/smartphone/GPU you grabbed last week is the cat’s meow. But what happens to it – or to any of the devices you once treasured- when you don’t want or need them anymore? Where do they go? Is there a reliable, “green” way to dispose of them? And hey, does one extra electronic gadget in a landfill really put the big hurt on the environment?

Let’s start simple by looking at one of today’s most ubiquitous electronic gadgets, the mobile phone or smart phone. … The mobile phone is far from green. Indeed, it houses a lot of stuff you certainly wouldn’t want to sprinkle on your cereal. Stuff like copper, gold, lead, nickel, antimony, zinc, beryllium, tantalum, mercury, arsenic, and coltan (more on coltan in a moment), among others.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff not to like about the way we deal with our old and unloved electronics. We toss way too much of it. We recycle some of it, but even then the machinery behind that recycling is flawed and we’re only beginning to understand the dangers that come from the hazardous materials that lay inside. Changes are afoot, but the evidence of an apathetic past and present, like the e-waste itself, is piling up.

And let’s not forget – not all unused products are immediately given the heave-ho. Consumers tend to stockpile stuff they don’t use any longer. Admit it – how many old game consoles or mobile phones or laptops or TVs or cameras or CD players, Walkmans, record players, spare monitors are sitting around your house right now because you’ll either use them again one day (fat chance), or because you just don’t know what to do about it?

That last paragraph describes my position so well that they must have peered into my cupboard!

Seriously, disposing of old tech stuff without sending it straight to landfill can be difficult, especially if you’re outside the big cities. Last time I tried, I rang and emailed around to try to do the right thing. Our only computer recycler wouldn’t take anything that wasn’t relatively new and commercial-grade; no city council department could help; local waste recyclers didn’t take e-waste; and Brisbane e-waste recyclers didn’t have any way to get my junk from here to there.

Right now, people in Townsville have a one-off chance to do the right thing with their techno-rubble, since a Brisbane company is coming to us for one day: Buyequip is holding another

Electronic Waste Recyclathon

at 3 – 7 Macrossan St, South Townsville,
between 9.00 and 3.00 on September 7, 2012.

On the day, they will be accepting the following electronic waste:

  • Computers – laptop and desktop
  • Monitors – LCD and CRT
  • Printers and scanners
  • Computer peripherals – power supplies, networking equipment, cables, etc.
  • Telephones and mobile phones (but not televisions or whitegoods)

Buyequip is an award winning End of Life IT Services organisation dedicated to preventing electronic waste entering our landfills. More than 98% of the materials collected on the day will be diverted from the landfill waste stream.
If you are keen to attend, please email Suzie Bowen suzie.bowen@buyequip.com.au or call her on 0488 331 662 . They look forward to seeing you on the day!

More information:

The Gizmodo article recommends a Greenpeace study [Edit: updated here in 2017] that ranks the most dominant tech producers in terms of their environmental footprint.

Afterword

The day came, and I took a couple of boxes of our e-waste down to South Townsville. The operation there was simplicity itself: one container on a vacant block, two people, a clipboard so people could leave their names and contact info (presumably for next time). By the time I arrived, the container was about half full and there were boxes on the grass beside it, waiting to be stacked inside.

old computers in containerold computer gear in container

Greener computing: newsletters

As a member of several small clubs and societies, I (like many of my readers, I am sure) receive several newsletters every month, and as a newsletter editor myself I notice the presentation as well as the content. I see a gradual but inexorable trend towards newsletters which are both posted in hard copy via snail mail and sent via email, or have even gone all the way to online-only distribution.

As a conservationist (like many of my readers, I am sure), some of the emailed newsletters disappoint me. I’m sure their editors – well-meaning, under-appreciated folk one and all (like many of my readers, I am sure) – don’t realise that computing has a significant environmental footprint. That means, of course, that reducing the electronic size (the file size) of an emailed newsletter is worthwhile, saving carbon emissions just as an emailed newsletter saves trees and postie-bike emissions (as well as postage costs) in the first place.

How can we do it? What makes a ‘big’ file?

Saving a few test documents on your computer shows that words alone aren’t a problem. Twelve pages of text might become a 100-200 KB file – not big at all. Drop a photo into it, however, and file size explodes to perhaps 3 MB (that’s 3000 KB). Think, “Oh, a smaller photo will be okay,” and down-size the photo in Word and it will still be 3MB.

Oops! Why?

In a word, Word. By default, it saves the photo with the document at its original size, even when it shows and prints a much smaller version. If you’re foolhardy or a Word expert, you could dig down into its dialogue boxes to change that setting (look for “Compress Pictures”). Alternatively, and more reliably, you can re-size the photo before inserting it into your document. Use any basic image-editing software (Picasa is fine) and “save as” a new name so that you haven’t over-written your best-quality original.

How big does the photo need to be?

In the monthly newsletter I edit for Reef HQ Aquarium, my column is 7.6cm wide so I can simply set width=7.6cm. For an extra benefit we must look at “resolution”, which is how many pixels (dots) per inch (dpi), and save at the right width and the correct resolution. Glossy-magazine resolution is 300dpi, newspapers are more like 120dpi and computers have improved from a blurry 72dpi to around 96. More dots means a bigger file, and there’s no sense in printing anything people can’t actually see, so I have settled on 150dpi, which is better than screen resolution and just as good as the photocopier can achieve for the hard copies.

composite image at different resolutions
Reducing resolution from 300dpi to 150, 72 and (an extreme) 36dpi reduces this small picture’s file size from 140KB to 40, 16 and 12KB. The first change saves the most memory and is the least visible.

The composite image above isn’t necessarily at the stated resolutions any more although it does accurately represent the amount of change from one resolution to the next. This pdf is the same sequence of images at their original sizes.

Sending your newsletter as a Word file (.doc or .docx) can turn it into alphabet soup if the recipient’s computer doesn’t have your favourite fonts, and may even make it unreadable to anyone who hasn’t got the latest version of Word, so we should normally turn it into a pdf. In Windows, there’s one last tweak here: go to the preferences for saving pdf files and choose the “save at minimum size” option. The saving is smaller but worthwhile.

Using these strategies results in a newsletter of twelve A4 pages becoming a pdf of about 1000 – 1200 KB (1 to 1.2 MB). It would be between two and ten times that size with the same number of photos just dropped into the Word file and edited there – slower to send, slower to open, and burning up between two and ten times as much CO2 at every step for no visible benefit. Incidentally, the advantages of re-sizing your photos apply just as much to web pages: shrinking them to the right size and resolution will speed up page loading and save CO2 without any noticeable impact on the readers’ enjoyment.

A slightly different version of this article is due to appear in Waves, newsletter of the Reef HQ Volunteers Association, very shortly. Click here to download an earlier issue and see what it looks like … you might enjoy some of the articles, too.