This Old Mac

Computer obsolescence is in the eye of the beholder

A trip to the University of Minnesota's computer-repair shop is like a visit to a natural history museum. Countless obsolete monitors and printers that once ruled every office and computer lab on campus now clutter the floor of the shop's showroom. Shelves of prehistoric hard drives line the walls. If you dig far enough down through the refuse, you may even uncover a Macintosh IIci, that workhorse of the late 1980s, which debuted with a then-whopping 40 megabyte hard drive. But although they're outdated, many of these beasts are anything but dead, thanks to Computer Repair Service manager Mark Zierdt and his staff of ten. Since January Zierdt and crew have been collecting old computer equipment on campus and resurrecting anything that shows signs of usability.

"Departments will give us a call, and we'll come pick up their old equipment in our van. We've had 136 requests since we started," Zierdt reports, adding that the loads range from one professor's office computer to a truckful. "Once we took in 70 pieces of equipment from a lab room."

Once in the shop, the computers are disassembled by Zierdt's technicians, who determine whether they're worth salvaging. "We'll add memory, install hardware or a CD-ROM to make a product sellable," Zierdt explains, leading a quick tour of a room whose every work surface is festooned with gutted equipment. "We can sell a lot of stuff not long after we find it."

The vast majority of the hardware is made by Apple, a consequence of the University's longtime affiliation with that company, and Zierdt cites Power Macs (which sell for between $200 and $300) as big sellers. Pentium PCs (which start at $175) also move well. Although the computers don't contain modems, they're all Internet-capable. Zierdt says he sells a lot of equipment to Minneapolis public schools--another Mac-happy group--and to small businesses, but the general public is free to come in and browse.

Of course, much of what the repair service picks up on campus is too outdated or otherwise too decrepit to function. While nostalgic customers have been known to rummage through the shop's antique-computer exhibit in search of novelty items--Zierdt recalls a pair who purchased a fully functional Classic Mac II with the intent of transforming it into a fish tank--most of the elderly Macs end up being hauled to Como Yards, the University's primary waste facility, where they're disposed of or recycled. Because monitors and hard drives contain lead--the cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, used in monitors contain nearly as much lead as car batteries--the Hennepin County Department of Environmental Services has authorized the repair service as a so-called hazardous waste generator.

"We started offering the service because customers would ask for equipment that we would find abandoned around campus," Zierdt explains. "We also knew that computers should not be tossed in the garbage." According to Zierdt, last year someone began offering a pickup service for computer equipment at the University, then dumped everything in an abandoned warehouse. When county environmental officials discovered the equipment, which was still licensed to the University, they showed up at the repair shop's doorstep; the University had to clean up the mess.

Given the light-speed rate of hardware and software development, by the time most new equipment reaches the market it's already well on its way to obsolescence. ("In a year iMacs will show up at the shop," Zierdt predicts.) The result has been a plethora of computer and electronic waste worldwide. Recently legislators in Massachusetts took dramatic action, enacting an outright ban on CRTs at municipal facilities. Tony Hainault, policy analyst for the Minnesota's Office of Environmental Assistance, says his agency is working with electronic manufacturers and waste facilitators to keep hazardous computer components out of facilities here. "Minnesota could support a [legislative] ban on CRTs, but it's expensive to dispose of them--about ten to twenty dollars per CRT," Hainault says. "And we do not yet have a system to deal with that much waste."

Hennepin County, however, does. In 1992 the county's Department of Environmental Services became an international pioneer when it began offering to dispose of its residents' household electronic waste--including personal computers--free of charge. Last year alone the county dismantled 700 tons of electronic equipment.

Back at the repair-service lab, amid the heaps of broken-down hard drives, Mark Zierdt shudders at the thought of such computer carnage. "When you see all the waste that goes out the door," he laments, "it gives you a sick feeling."

 

The Computer Repair Service, currently located on 2716 Summer St., is about to undergo its own upgrade. As of August 6 its new address will be 2331 University Ave. SE. For a complete list of items for sale, browse the shop's Web site (www.umn.edu/crs/usedequip.html). If you live in Hennepin County and have an aging computer or other electronic gizmo to unload, call (612) 348-6500. Residents of other counties should contact their local household hazardous waste program.

 
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