Breathing new life into old computers

Bart Anderson has been a big part of the local Transition community since the beginning.  He helped start TPA, has served on the steering committee, and continues to help manage the website and mailing lists. In recent months, Bart has started to refurbish old computers as a way to help others while reducing waste and saving resources.

Bart writes:
I have Eitan Fenson to blame for the piles of old laptops littering our living room.  He’s the one who  started me on a voyage of discovery about how to reduce the environmental impact of computers.  And how to get unwanted computers into the hands of people who can use them.

Two years ago, he told me how he used dozens of old laptops to set up a phone bank for a local political group (the name of which begins with “D”).  Most of us think that a computer built five years ago is “old,” but Eitan showed me that even computers 10 years old have a lot of life left in them.

When I showed interest, Eitan gave me a sample laptop – a Dell D620, a business laptop from 2006. As a former computer tech writer, I was impressed with how well it was built. Not only was it solid as a tank, but it ran flawlessly and was easy to fix.

In the Transition spirit, I began refurbishing laptops myself, converting our dining room table into a workshop.

So far I’ve saved 39 (update: now 68) laptops from the landfill and given them to individuals and groups. Many more units are in the pipeline.

Here’s the story of an old duffer who’s been an inspiration to me … and he seems to be having fun too:

Keeping old computers alive is good for the environment. As Jim Lynch of Tech Soup (San Francisco) points out, extending the life of a computer saves 5 to 20 times more energy than recycling it. (“Environmental Case for Refurbished IT Equipment”

For more background, see this video by Annie Leonard (“Story of Stuff”):

You can drastically reduce the impact of computers by making them last as long as possible.  Taking care of your computer means protecting it from liquid spills, physical impacts and, above all, HEAT!  Periodically clean the dust from inside your computer, and avoid putting your laptop on fabrics which will restrict  the air intake.


When you are finished with your computer, try to pass it on to someone who will use it. Consider giving it away, reselling it, or donating it to someone who will refurbish it.

As a last resort, recycle it. Palo Altans are lucky because electronics can be recycled by putting devices in a recycle bin. Whatever you do, don’t put it in the trash. Electronic devices are full of toxins.

There are many other ways we can make a difference. I hope to be writing more about them in the future. For example:

  • Computer self-help groups. We’ve been floating ideas about a computer Google group, or evening computer clinics
  • Linux and “free” software. These make it possible to keep old computers alive. Also, learning about Linux is a big step away from being a passive consumer, and taking control of your computing life.
  • If anyone is interested in the details of refurbishing or a refurbishing program, contact me. Free Geek, headquartered in Portland, is a source of inspiration for community-based programs.

Navy technician Latarsha Young displays one of many computers damaged by floodwaters in Millington, Tenn. (2010)

David Herron of TPA also refurbishes computers – in his case, MacBook Pros. See his article “Save money and the planet, repair/upgrade your old MacBook Pro rather than tossing it to buy a new one.”

UPDATE (October 28, 2016)
An expanded version of this article was posted on the sustainability site,

UPDATE (November 1, 2016)
A local television station, KTVU, reported on call centers for the presidential elections. Many of the laptops shown are ones that Bart refurbished and Eitan deployed. The relevant part of the video starts at 1:00 in:


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