Modern technology presents us with a unique and uncomfortable dilemma; what to do with old electronic hardware? For many reasons—from a lack of updated software to the desirable features of newer models, to hard-to-replace batteries—we are replacing consumer electronics at an increasingly rapid pace. Regrettably, today’s thousand-dollar cellphone is often bound for tomorrow’s landfill. And, what is worse is that we’re often discarding products that are still functional—still with plenty of useful life in them—but unfortunately perceived as obsolete.
Some of us are appalled by the environmental impact of all this electronic waste—also known as e-waste—and the personal expense of forced upgrades often the result of planned obsolescence. What can we do? The popular and obvious answer is to give or donate our still-working devices to someone that can use them—children and charities, for example. However, let us look at some more creative projects and solutions that allowed us to make the most of the devices we think we no longer need.
Don’t Trash Your Mobile
Cellphones are undoubtedly the prime candidate for an extended second life. That is because a modern cellphone or smartphone is perhaps the most remarkable concentration of highly sophisticated but affordable technology ever seen in human history. Even an entry-level $300 cellphone packages a powerful computer, human-friendly I/O, wireless communications, battery power, and a variety of sensors—all in a 150 g package.
That efficient computing core plus an array of sensors makes a cellphone an excellent controller and camera for something like a robotics project or a drone. However, it’s not necessary to be so ambitious. We do not need to use all of a phone’s features. More often, we want to turn the phone into a reliable, dedicated device that only performs a single, simple function. For example, an old cellphone can work great as a high-resolution wireless camera for security or communications. Numerous free or inexpensive apps make it easier to turn a phone into an internet camera, capable of detecting motion and streaming video to a local PC or the cloud. Cellphones also have a plethora of sensors that can measure barometric air pressure, magnetic fields, acceleration, and orientation and so on. Data from any of these sensors can be sent to a whole host of other connected devices—for example, as part of a DIY weather station, a burglar alarm, or as part of your home’s Internet of Things (IoT).
A smartphone’s big touchscreen also makes it a handy dedicated remote control for smart home systems, or for almost anything.
Computers Are Everywhere
While cellphones are the kings of recyclable tech, there are other contenders for technological resurrection. Low-cost computing power has become so ubiquitous that a considerable number of today’s consumer products are smart. They are fully-fledged embedded computers with a processor, some form of I/O, and permanent and dynamic storage. There are computers hidden inside washing machines, wireless headphones, cameras, and air conditioners, though only a tiny fraction of their computing potential is being used.
However, for anyone hoping to modify or re-use many of these consumer devices and products, the difficulty is that there is usually no software available to reprogram and re-purpose them, and in the absence of hardware documentation, it’s unreasonably burdensome for most individuals to develop their own software. A fortunate exception to this is the wireless router. Several flexible and expandable replacement operating systems are available for hundreds of low-cost consumer routers, the most popular systems are DD-WRT and OpenWRT. These systems provide a graphical management interface and a vast variety of pre-packaged extensions that can turn the router into anything from a Network Accessible Storage (NAS) device, to a web server, to a dedicated BitTorrent downloader, to a file and printer server. There is also plenty of opportunities for users to customize the software being that many of these routers run on open source or Linux-based software.
Note that, while DD-WRT and OpenWRT are available for a wide variety of common routers based around a system on chip processor (SoC) from companies like Qualcomm and MediaTek, the simplest devices with less than 8 MB of flash memory or less than 64 MB of RAM are less likely to be fully supported.
Cracking the Case
Finally, how about finding a use for consumer electronics devices which seem to be just too old or too broken to be useful? Even these can be worth exploring. Components can be desoldered for use in other projects, for repairs, or for experimentation, for example. Older products, which tend to have larger-scale, less highly-integrated components, are the easiest to dismantle, of course, but hobbyists have had surprising success even with tiny surface mounted components.
While it might be possible to save money by giving an old device a second life, that often isn’t the case—because let’s be honest, it’s usually cheaper to buy a new replacement product. Repurposing old electronic hardware to bring it back from the dead is often more than just an economic endeavor; it can also be a fun and an ecologic way to learn about the inner workings of the technology that drives our modern world.