Green Modders: Can Custom PCs Reduce Electronic Waste?

PC modding goes green as custom builders entice consumers to buy tech works of art instead of disposable electronics.

The sound of LEGO bricks snapping together is now just white noise for PC builder Mike Schropp, who uses thousands of the plastic pieces to encase his custom-built, eco-friendly PCs.

Schropp’s custom computers are designed to adapt and overcome the typically short life span of electronics. With customisation and upgradability built into the design, he hopes to change the relationship of consumers with their PCs from short-term infatuation to long-term ownership.

“The desktop PC market tends to revolve around people buying a black metal box, then at some point sadly throwing it away and buying another one,” Schropp said. “This produces massive waste and a huge environmental burden.”

Micro Lego Computer Green Modding
Custom built by Mike Schropp, the Micro LEGO Computer system offers room to expand the system using add-on LEGO brick modules. Image courtesy of Mike Schropp.

Others have joined the cause to make PC purchasing better for the environment. These so-called “green modders” are hoping their PCs help people build a long-lasting relationship with custom artisanal computers. Creations like Schropp’s LEGO PCs and the handcrafted sustainable wood-encased Volta V are designed to make consumers think twice about discarding these tech works of art.

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

The move toward responsible tech consumption couldn’t come at a better time. According to United Nations University, electronic waste totalled nearly 41.8 million metric tons in 2014.

Sustainable modding is part of a larger ongoing effort to address the wastefulness of tech culture. Sony implemented a “take back” recycling electronics program in 2007, and Sprint and Dell similarly joined forces with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011 to promote electronics donation and recycling.

The EPA launched the Sustainable Materials Management Electronics Challenge in 2012 to encourage more electronics manufacturers and retailers to use certified electronics refurbishers and recyclers. In 2016, challenge participants collected more than 256,822 tons of electronics. This volume of electronics recycling is equivalent to generating enough electricity for more than 90,000 U.S. homes for one year.

Tech Works of Art

One big problem green modders face is changing consumers’ perception about what green PC design looks like. Jeffrey Stephenson, aka Slipperyskip, an artisanal PC builder, found that one deterrent to wastefulness is convincing customers that computers can be artistic design objects. For example, his handcrafted mid-century builds look right at home next to the other artistic furniture populating his living room.

Jeffrey Stephenson Green Modding
Custom PC builds by Jeffrey Stephenson fit into a home’s decor as tech works of art. Image courtesy of Jeffrey Stephenson.

Firm in his belief that PCs should blend into a room’s decor, Stephenson has rejected electronics that stand out like a sore thumb, personally banning mass-produced PCs made of plastic, steel or LED lights.

Ty Underwood, one of Volta V’s designers, agreed that sustainable design should be pleasing to the eye. He and his team chose to use natural materials that grow more beautiful with age.

“Well-built wooden furniture develops colour and character over time,” Underwood explained. “ sustainability is making an object that the user wants to keep, eliminating any ‘perceived obsolescence’ effect.”

Based in Greenville, South Carolina, the Volta V team went through a painstaking prototyping process to find the most eco-friendly materials. The wood needed to not only be beautiful, but also be sustainably sourced, able to withstand the precision machining of the CNC process and resistant to the heat generated by hardware. After trying walnut, bamboo, cherry, hickory, ash, oak and a few others, Volta V decided to use renewable forest timber grown in the US.

The result? “Next year’s computers won’t make this year’s Volta V look dated and boring because it will look great forever,” said Underwood.

Green modders: wood PC box
The Volta V chassis uses handcrafted sustainable wood grown in the U.S. Image courtesy of Volta V.

Additionally, finding eco-friendly hardware means sticking to products that use conflict-free mineral resources. Underwood uses Intel microprocessors, which are sourced from conflict-free mines in Eastern Congo that provide a safe working environment for miners.

Upgrade Instead of Replacing

Another way that green modders are attracting sales is emphasising upgradability. Schropp’s LEGO builds focus on longevity through hardware rather than artisanal materials. The more a buyer upgrades, the less waste gets sent to landfills.

According to Schropp, upgradability deters customers from tossing outdated rigs by encouraging them to invest in repairs. By framing PCs with a nostalgia-soaked LEGO aesthetic, he invites consumers to think back to a time when imagination was the only limit to what they could build. He believes these open-ended builds are always ripe for tinkering.

Despite different approaches, green modders agree on one fundamental concept when it comes to eco-friendly PCs: Consumers don’t need to sacrifice power for sustainability. High quality hardware is engineered with longevity in mind.

Underwood agrees that filling Volta V’s artisanal chassis with premium components adds life to the build. A small investment up front ensures long lasting performance, features and durability.

Green modding: inside of custom PC
Using high quality components helps maintain the longevity of custom PCs. Image courtesy of Volta V.

Whether its upgradability or aesthetic beauty, the green modder movement takes PCs outside the realm of mass produced items. Through customisation and craftsmanship, they hope to foster personal relationships between consumers and their computers.

“The closer people feel to the creation and maintenance of the objects around them, the more emotionally invested [they] are in making a better future for people and our planet,” Underwood said.

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