Solving the e-waste dilemma with One Used Mac Per Child.


60 Minutes had an expose on electronic waste (e-waste) that really hit home. In his report, Scott Pelley found that a lot of American computers and electronics were being melted, burned, and stripped in China, releasing poisonous fumes and chemicals into the environment. Lead, dioxin, and chlorine-based compounds are finding their way into Chinese citizens’ bloostreams, and it’s mostly because of our computers, CRT monitors, and cell phones.

I’m on the board for a local recycling non-profit, and twice a year we hold e-waste drives for the community. It’s where I get a lot of my second-hand project Macs.

I’ve seen the amount of electronic junk that can pile up first hand. At our most recent e-waste drive, my organization collected 12 tons of electronics. Most of that was TVs and CRTs, which means a lot of people are switching to flat-screen TVs and LCD monitors. We work with a group from Grand Rapids, Michigan that strips the electronics at a local plant and sells off the scrap materials. They also sell any salvageable equipment. We’ve done the research, and visited their plant, just to make sure nothing is sent overseas, like 60 Minutes reported.

For me, this is a moral issue. What good is our comfortable existence if we’re poisoning another country and its people? Does the latest and greatest hardware make all that pollution justifiable? As Scott Pelley reported, it’s our planned-obsolescence society, our need to have the newest and fastest technology, that is to blame for the tons and tons of junk that gets sent overseas. Our lifestyle is a card trick: we’re just shuffling the burden of our materialism to poorer, less-well-off citizens.

As a classic Mac appreciator and user, I take part of the responsibility for easing China’s burden. Rescuing Macs from the trash heap is a hobby for me. Besides all the fun I have with these “obsolete” machines, in a way I’m saving them from being stripped, buried, or burned. Luckily the recycler we deal with is dedicated to keeping e-waste out of third-world countries. But my small effort saves the energy and resources it takes to either (a) recycle the computers or (b) create new ones. I haven’t bought a brand-new Mac since 2005; my iMac G4 works just fine, thanks.

I’m certainly not alone. There’s a giant community of low end Mac users (with a web site to boot) out there who save these classic computers from the e-scrap pile. For them, old Macs are usable (and mod-able!) Macs. Some even prefer the older machines and their quirky personalities. Maybe the strongest exhibit requires only a quick glance at the Newton user community .

Here’s something to think about: Apple’s laser-precise focus on environmental responsibility is a great thing. I salute it. Now think about all those Mac SEs and Performas out there that don’t receive the benefits of PVC- and mercury-free construction. Tossing a Color Classic in a dumpster is like carpet-bombing some poor village in Africa. Older Macs are filled with pollutants – as are older PCs, TVs, and electronics.

It’s comforting to know that Macs have a long, long after-market life on eBay and Craiglist. Name another computer manufacturer that can claim the kind prices a used Mac can fetch on an auction site.

Macs are also built to last. Macs from the G4 and G5 era, while just now starting to show their age, can get plenty of use (and a fair auction price) for years to come. My own Bondi Blue iMac is still chugging along 10 years later, and we hear plenty of stories about Mac SEs getting tons of use in our gigahertz age. As Apple appreciators, we can sleep a little easier at night knowing our corner of the computing world causes less harm than, say, all those business Dells that get tossed from year to year.

But we’re not innocent. Not by a long shot. No matter how many Macs I rescue from our e-waste drives, there are tons – all across America – that get trashed every single day. My heart breaks every time I see a smashed iMac G3 or an old Apple II that someone drops off to be recycled. That just means one more kid in China might end up with some crippling disease.

Corny? A little. Maybe what we ought to be doing instead is giving our Macs a good home. I bet that kid in China would love a slightly-used iBook so that he or she could learn about computers. Instead of One Laptop Per Child, we could initiate a One Used Mac Per Child. It would require rounding up thousands of usable Macs, installing OS 9 or OS X and some basic apps, and making minor upgrades where possible. We’re all Apple nerds: the project would keep us busy for months. But, man, think of how much fun we’d have. And we would have some small impact on the problem of e-waste.

We could team up with electronic recyclers across America and give them the message: give us your broken, your used, your beat-up Macs. We’ll take them home, fix them up, and give them to kids to don’t otherwise have the means or the ability to purchase a computer. There are groups out there that do this kind of thing, but ours would be special. Ours involves Macs. What kid would smile, knowing he or she would be getting a fix-up, usable, Internet-ready Macintosh? There are risks of course, and unintended consequences to consider. But with OUMPC, the benefits are two-fold: more Macs in deserving hands, and less e-waste.

How many of us have extra power cords, OS discs, keyboards, mice, and Ethernet connectors? How many of us have a perfectly fuctional Mac sitting in the closet? How many of us have the credentials to get a simple web site and application process up and running in a matter of days? You think the number of Mac users is growing by leaps and bounds now? Imagine that number when every kid who needs one gets a freshened-up Mac in the family room.

Just imagine.

In the meantime, now that Apple is taking more responsibility for its environmental impact, the Macs made from here on out will be less detrimental to our planet. So there’s hope. But the damage is being done, and from the amount of e-junk we receive at our modest community e-waste drives, there are tons and tons of materials out there that aren’t accounted for. It’s frightening.

All we can do is use our Macs longer, hand down our used Macs to those who can appreciate them, and make sure our throwaways are recycled in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Given the damage we’ve already done, it’s the least we can do.

[Image courtesy of Greenpeace.]


  1. I’m all for it – and ready to put Low End Mac behind the effort. How about we try to organize this on a regional basis? (I’m in Grand Rapids, Michigan.)

  2. Count me in too. (Arkansas)

  3. I’m all for this as well. (Vermont)

  4. Western Massachusetts reporting for duty!

  5. Lowell, MA. I’ve been doing this exact thing for over a year now! Happy to help. Count me in :)

  6. I have older computers ready to give up and not just macs . I am ready.

  7. I really like your idea- a website i frequent is picking up the idea and trying to make it reality as well.
    However, I think your ethical analysis is a little bit off track. Those computers would not be in China being stripped down unless someone was making a profit on them with the Chinese government’s blessings. I feel terribly that people are being poisoned like this, but China has an abysmal environmental record. Only 24 hours prior to this last summer’s Olympics smog was so thick in Beijing that people couldn’t see even 2 blocks away. Last I heard, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world were in China. Chinese companies have made a habit out of producing food products containing toxic chemicals that lead to serious medical problems or even death world wide.
    China is industrializing at an insane pace, and they have shown that they have no intention of moving towards the environmental stewardship that the US is slowly but surely moving towards.
    Should we be more responsible with our used electronics and reuse and recycle them more responsibly? Absolutely. Is it the the fault of the US that Chinese companies are wantonly poisoning their citizens and the world? I’m not ready to claim responsibility for that.

  8. @Jason: that’s fine. Linux, Windows, heck – even OS/2!

    @Brian: I see your point. Part of it is American companies looking for a quick buck by exporting e-waste to China. If they managed it like they should, they could make a real impact. But knowing what we know now – that some of our e-waste goes over there – makes it our responsibility to see that it’s taken care of properly. You can’t claim ignorance anymore. Yes, China is a bad place environmentally, and yes, they probably don’t give two shits about poisoning their own people. But we should. We’re better than that.

    @everyone else: thanks so much! Let’s get some work done.

  9. Count me in… I’m in southern Wisconsin.

  10. I also want to contribute. I don’t see anything that shows what “old Macs” are considered too old. I have, in the last year and a half, sold three SEs to teens. They loved playing with them and returned nearly all to be recycled when they finished with them.

    But, OS 6 to 7.5.5? The SE to the 6300, 7600, 9500/9600 and the 4400. This sound right?

    I’ve contacted lots of people in an effort to know if Apple has a program similar toMicrosoft’s MAR, (Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher), licensing in an effort to make maybe OS X 10.3 available like that. No response in over a year.

    Even so, a 4400 or a 7600 has lots of freeware available. Just isn’t really likely to be a good internet machine.

    Still, it’s worth the effort seeing that they’re given away. Be ready to provide lots of support.

  11. […] Used Mac Per Child: join the cause Dan Knight over at Low End Mac took my little idea and ran with it. There’s now a Google Group you can join, and volunteers are lining up from […]

  12. […] at Newton Poetry makes a good point in his post One Used Mac Per Child about the culture of throw-it-away that pervades our society. We throw away so many old computers […]

  13. […] the iMac G3 / iBook G3 RAM swap I try to practice what I preach, so when my grandma’s old Packard Bell computer exploded, I bought a used blueberry iMac G3 […]

  14. […] Solving the e-waste dilemma with One Used Mac Per Child […]

  15. Count me in: Eindhoven, The Netherlands

  16. This is why IMO PowerPC macs, even the high-end G4 machines like what Leopard supports now, shoudl still be supported for a few OS X releases at least, because for standard work, they are more than enough for many people.

    I like the idea, however I’d feel more comfortable knowing that someone is using an operating system that has security support. Sure this is only a concern if the machine goes on the net, but more and more the internet is what people would like to have access to, which means security is important.

    Just my 2 cents.

  17. My husband has been refurbishing used Macs (and PCs) for years. Everyone we know gives him their old computers, printers and other equipment when they upgrade. He puts together a “new” package and gives it to people who otherwise would have nothing at all. Two years ago we moved to the country, a farming community full of kids with no computers and little or no internet access. (The loss of high speed cable access is just about the only thing we miss about the city.) He’s been quite busy ever since, making many kids happier and computer savvy as well.

    So, as you consider groups who would benefit from used Macs, consider your nearest rural area as well. We don’t have to send computers to China when so many American kids need them, too.

  18. Well said, Kay. Rural areas and, I’m sure, a lot of inner-city areas of America can use refurbished Macs. Kudos to your husband!

  19. My wife and I have been refurbishing PC’s and giving them to the city kids for awhile now. I recently got a great deal on an old iMac 233 tray loader and set it up for my daughter. It is the greatest thing ever. I am a mac user but I never realized the potential of an old mac compared to an old pc. I live in Dayton, Ohio and would love to be part of this. Let me know if there is any information available yet. Right now on Craigslist here, there is a guy selling like 75 old imacs/emacs for a near nothing. I however do not have the funds to acquire them but I urge people to check it out.

  20. Thanks for chiming in, Jason. Dan Knight from Low End Mac set up a Google Group, One Used Mac, you can check out and participate in.

  21. […] Frank Fox at Low End Mac, on buying used Macs instead of new. I’m all for making good use of used Macs. I’m typing this on an iMac G4 that I got off eBay for a great deal. Sometimes […]

  22. […] original idea behind the One Used Mac Per Child was to take classic Macintoshes and give them to underpriveleged kids who could use a […]

  23. I think this is a wonderful idea! But.. How do you plan on addressing the software license issue? Or accounting for that?

  24. Because classic Mac software is so affordable through places like eBay, you can easily buy copies of whatever you need and give them away.

    That’s part of the idea: Macs as charity.

    Or, simply give the person your copy of the software. That’s what I’ve done on several copies of OS 9.

    That’s how I account for it, at least.

  25. I try to do that, but the jerks at the e-waste facilities always say, “no salvaging is aloud”.

    but it’s really saving, not salvaging. *sigh…. :( All those working macs getting trashed, and they don’t let you take some.

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