The Path to the Electronics Graveyard
Last weekend was the first electronics recycling event in Manhattan since the before times — pre-Covid-19, that is. I scoured shelves and drawers and headed off to the midtown location with three overstuffed bags of electronics detritus and the carcass of a desktop PC — all accumulating since the last time I recycled about three years ago. That’ll teach me to put off until a post-pandemic tomorrow what can be done today.
The desktop was the most recent discard. With the mounting concerns over identity theft and privacy, I didn’t want to take any chances with lingering sensitive data on the hard drive. Adding muscle and brain power from my partner Liz, we extricated the hard drive and summoned our best 7-year-old demons to scratch up the shiny disk with a Phillips-head screwdriver, then passed a strong magnet over the top for good measure, before pummeling it with a few whacks of a hammer. We repeated the cycle for the hard drive from the PC before this one. Who needs meditation when you can smash up an old hard drive or two?
It was less satisfying to go through generations of consumer electronics products that had at one time brought me joy and now were collecting dust. I was a little surprised that not only had I gone through one iPad, but I had two that were beyond the software upgrade stage. I hate to think about what I spent on them, especially when I don’t use an iPad all that often. Here’s hoping the current one lasts through several more iPadOS update cycles.
I’m still able to use the proprietary Apple lightning cables that came with those two iPads, along with the power adapter that was included in the box. That’s good, since Apple doesn’t include power adapters anymore with the iPhone. My luck? The next time I get a new phone, Apple will have switched to USB-C — or God forbid, another proprietary charging connector — and I’ll have to haul off the lightning connectors on my next trip to the Eco-Tech truck.
One bag on Saturday was filled entirely with connectors, power cables and adapters I no longer need — red and white RCA audio cables, a yellow S-Video one, and a bunch of proprietary power cords that I assume I won’t need again because I couldn’t identify the gadgets they came with. I had no idea why I had an HDMI-to-Mini-HDMI adapter cable and did a Google search hoping to find out. That didn’t help, but I did see that Amazon warned on a product listing about confusing a Micro-HDMI port with a Mini-HDMI port. I wondered how many people bought the wrong one … and if I was one of them.
I dumped two Sonos components: a bridge that was once required to connect Sonos speakers to the internet via direct connection to the router (glad those days are gone) and an Amp that connected my integrated amplifier to the Sonos network. The Amp went the way of the Sonos S1 operating system that’s no longer able to get software updates, having left me with a forced upgrade for a $649 piece of gear.
An old digital camera body also went to electronics heaven. We thought about putting it on eBay, but between the plunge in standalone digital SLR sales due to advances in smartphone cameras — and this one’s 20-year-old age — we found there was little to no value in the old girl. I hope she’s worth something to someone in reclaimed materials.
I feel very different about my old Nikon FM film camera that, it seems, I’ll never give up. I’ll also likely never take a roll of film to be developed again, but I have a fondness for that old camera and its manual functions: loading the film, threading it onto the sprockets, setting the aperture to get the desired depth of field, adjusting the focus…. We had a physical connection, that camera and I, and that’s something I’ll never have with my iPhone camera. There’s no going back, but there was something satisfying about the manual side of film photography.
I also tossed some old speaker cable and realized that there’s a generation or two who would have no idea what to do with speaker cable — how to clip off the ends to get to the exposed wire and then wrap it around speaker terminals with the correct polarity. I enjoyed that aspect of the electronics setup process when getting new speakers. Today, it’s about the invisible pairing between the phone and the Bluetooth speaker — another convenient technology advancement that has made music more accessible but removed from the hands-on experience.
A couple of sets of old wired headphones completed my electronics purge, and they made me think about how important wireless headphones have become to our daily lives. What were once accessories have become not only the standard way to listen to music but also essential work attire for employees in open-plan offices who want to block ambient noise. When the pandemic hit and people began working from home, headphones also became an enabler for Zoom calls.
Headphones, whether wired or wireless, have a shorter lifespan than the rest of the items we sent for shredding and sorting. A 2019 Vice article stuck with me. Though I get longer use out of a pair of headphones than the typical 18 months cited in the article (only because I alternate between earbuds and cans), the end-of-life scenario is disturbing:
“Then the lithium-ion batteries will stop holding much of a charge, and the AirPods will slowly become unusable. They can’t be repaired because they’re glued together. They can’t be thrown out, or else the lithium-ion battery may start a fire in the garbage compactor. They can’t be easily recycled, because there’s no safe way to separate the lithium-ion battery from the plastic shell. Instead, the AirPods sit in your drawer forever.”
Apple, for its part, has a way to take old AirPods off your hands, but the idea of cycling through earbuds (or over-the-ear headphones) due to wear and tear every couple of years just doesn’t sit well. It seems that as consumer electronics do more, their lifetimes shrink, and some become more disposable. Let’s hope someone is working on making the hardware stand up for a few more rounds.