Sudbury man finds joy in older computers and technology

·8 min read

When did you get your first desktop computer? What about your first laptop or tablet?

Where are they now?

That’s a question we should all be asking. Electronic waste is something we should be more aware of; instead - and more often - we see computers just as disposable as so much of our consumer world.

We should be looking at maximizing the life span and utility of devices, not being so fickle with obsolescence and always obtaining the latest gadget.

Nathan Abourbih has a passion for reviving, refurbishing, and celebrating the equipment that still has usable hours. Some pieces of equipment have stories to tell and miles still to go.

“I had a big red wagon of donated laptops and lights," Abourbih recalled. "We did a project at Dynamic Earth for new Canadian kids and they learned some programming to illuminate the pumpkins they carved during the Halloween celebration Science North held.”

That must have been quite the fun evening.

Abourbih works at Cambrian College of Applied Arts and Technology in Sudbury as program coordinator/professor of business and information technology. He manages the IT Business Analysis and Mobile Application Development programs.

He also breathes life back into pieces of equipment: “I’ve also been trying to keep my finger on paying attention to where the various kinds of electronics and e-waste are headed within the city.

Where did it all start? “My brother was part of a group of students at Lockerby Composite School who started the Sudbury Education Network - SEdNET - a dial-up community bulletin board using a piece of software called FirstClass. Each student in the region, regardless of their school, was invited to join and collaborate online at a blazing speed of 14.4 bps and we all had a limit of one hour per day because there were a limited number of phone lines and modems.

“When my brother graduated, I took the reins and ran SEdNET until eventually the internet became commonplace and we decommissioned it. The old Macintosh Quadra 950 that we used as our SEdNET server found a home in my basement for many years until I eventually took it to the e-waste pile at the dump. Now, years later, I wish I had kept it so I could show my children. Today, I find myself scouring Kijiji looking for people throwing away old computers so that my children and I can experience using them together.”

Abourbih once had his own technology store.

“It was a hole-in-the-wall computer sales and service company called Apogee Computers. I have found that even computers that are 10-15 years old have enough life in them that they can be quite useful to students. Any time I find a good computer heading to the dump - I do what I can to redirect it into the hands of someone who can get some use out of it. … at least now they are being diverted and something useful being done with them.

“In most cases they are being dismantled. I am a father of four, and all of our kids are between three and 10. All they have ever known is Netflix. Everything is 'On Demand’ even the idea that we would watch TV that has commercials injected into a show is completely foreign to them.”

The sense is that Abourbih wants them to acknowledge and understand technology’s evolution and significance.

“As I have been getting older and seeing my kids grow up so fast - as I often heard my parents say when I was younger - I started to feel nostalgic for the time when the internet was not such an active component in our lives. I remember dialing up to the internet and only having 15 hours per month, and a single picture taking seconds (that is multiple seconds for the younger readers) to load.

“I find the older computers more interesting. I want my kids to experience these pieces of history. I came across a 1970s IBM typewriter, which I have yet to show my kids. The earliest machines I remember are the 386s and the McIntosh machines.”

However, many computer systems and technologies as ephemeral.

“There are ways to bring older equipment back to life so they can communicate with our current computers. There are components that don’t last but there are ways to allow you to run these older machines. Today’s tablets, maybe you drop it and break it and yes, you could, maybe, find someone to fix it for you. But in many ways, it is just cheaper to get a new one.”

It is disposable. But should it be?

“There’s got to be a better way than just trashing these."

In his home workshop, Abourbih uses his skill and a few tools to bring computers back from the dead. But is there an industry that does this or are we truly a throwaway society?

Think about all the wiring and peripherals that are also tossed.

“There are a variety of companies around the world that specialize in refurbishing old equipment or extracting valuable materials or components. I am primarily self-taught using books, online materials, and more recently YouTube videos. Check out (bit.ly/3fPTWah) for refurbished computer systems for resale. That’s in Toronto, I don’t know of anything like that here.”

Is e-waste a pressing problem? Abourbih provides some background: “The Ontario government has introduced a new regulation back in January 2021 that encourages the reuse and refurbishment of products in order to resell them. This includes electronic items such as cellphones, computers, printers, and gaming equipment.

"However, here in Greater Sudbury, we have very few drop-off locations. As a father of four who is looking for old equipment to refurbish with my kids, I do not know where the equipment that is collected by this program goes. I would love to find out where the equipment goes so that I can introduce my kids to some awesome old technology.”

Most large corporations just lease for three years. Then they change and replace. Households tend to keep the technology for longer, but you don’t see many McIntosh SEs on countertops. There is, however, an older Apple device in Abourbih’s workshop.

”You know you can clean them up. Even restore their yellowed exteriors back to beige. Motherboards can be removed - take out the battery - and put it through the dishwasher.”

Really? That can’t be right. “Sure thing, they are incredibly robust. Don’t do that with your laptop. It is surprising what a toothbrush, some alcohol and contact cleaner can do. Just spray it …

“We are at the point technologically where my three-year-old smartphone is very viable for a corporation not to get their employees a computer. That phone has more power in it than laptops of the same age.”

We should be harvesting the precious metals from this waste stream, reprocessing batteries, and extracting usable components. Our mining from African soils alone has environmental and health impacts there and globally.

“Drive around on trash day, look to see what is there out at the curbside. If you bring it to the dump or transfer station, there is a special e-waste container. I don’t know where it goes after that,” Abourbih said. “All I’ve been doing is not because I want to resell it. My own nostalgia and sharing it with my kids is what is important. I do this one computer at a time. It is my big train set in my basement.”

Before the pandemic, retail sales chains such as Staples and Best Buy had mandated take-back programs, and e-waste disposal fees are built into purchases in most provinces.

Asking about e-waste how to dispose of it effectively and where it goes next are all valid questions. Keeping it working longer and recycling, and reducing our consumer demand for new and next are also ways to reduce e-waste.

What you can divert

In Greater Sudbury, many electronic items can be brought to a diversion area at the landfill sites. That includes:

• Televisions and monitors

• Telephones and cellular handheld devices

• Fax and answering machines

• Desktop computers, laptops, netbooks, notebooks and tablet

• Keyboards, mice, cables and internal computer components

• Printers, scanners, drivers and modems

• Audio recorders, tape/radio players, digital media (MP3) players and digital video cameras

• VCRs, DVD and CD players, speakers, amplifiers, receivers and data projectors

• Floor-standing photocopiers/printers/faxes

These items are recycled and used for other purposes. The city has an agreement with an external organization to receive the electrical and electronic equipment waste diverted at its landfill and waste diversion sites.

In 2020, the city diverted 287.13 tonnes of EEE waste.

Residents can also recycle old electronics through the Electronic Products Recycling Association. Drop-off locations can be found at www.recyclemyelectronics.ca/on/.

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

sud.editorial@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @SudburyStar

Hugh Kruzel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star