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Planned obsolescence meets its match

After losing his construction job, a tinkerer finds his niche resurrecting junked computers ‘to the maximum specs’

| 22 Jun 2023 | 01:59

Wires dangle from industrial shelving, monitors glow across the cold cement block walls, and bins overflow with scavenged electrical bits. This modest workshop, tucked away in a rear corner of Computer and E-Waste Recycling in Linden, NJ, might be better described as a surgical theater, where dead and dying computers are brought back to life by the deft hands of David Cabrales.

The workshop looks not unlike a set piece from Blade Runner or a cyberpunk fiction, but Cabrales’ Recycle Rig Rescue is very real, if off the beaten track; as of March, an officially recognized LLC. All the computers and projects shelved around him are 100% sourced from discarded electronics that have passed through the industrial doors of the aforementioned e-waste processing warehouse, often on pallets, and sorted into massive wheeled bins. This is where Cabrales searches for the best computers, or parts, to use in his own workshop.

“I started in construction at 16, and I thought I would do it until I retired,” said Cabrales. “Then Covid hit, and the company I had known since I was a kid went under. I had to go on unemployment and was trying to find a job, but all I knew was construction.” He actually noticed Computer and E-Waste Recycling for the first time on his way home from a job interview. He made a mental note to swing back in and see if they had any useful computer parts for sale, being as he has had a lifelong fascination with computers and tinkering.

“I’m a tinkerer,” he said. “I vividly remember my father bringing home our first computer: a Commodore 64. It was amazing, and after three days undecided I had to know what was inside.” His first foray into tinkering didn’t end so happily though, as Cabrales went on to explain. He couldn’t figure out how to put the pieces of the Commodore back together, effectively breaking the family’s new (very expensive) home computer days after its purchase.

Luckily, this didn’t discourage Cabrales in the long run. His initial inquiries about PC parts at Computer and E-Waste Recycling led to a gig helping an employee fix up computers for resale. Once the employee left Computer and E-Waste Recycling, the reins were handed over to Cabrales, who solidified the foundations and legitimized the business by forming the LLC. He now spends his days resurrecting countless home computers written off as dead, reselling them at a bargain.

“Every computer I sell is upgraded to the maximum specs. I price them very low. Most of my customers are low income, and that’s who I want to do this for,” he said. “I remember a kid came in with his dad and saw this gaming rig I built, with lights and all, and I remember the look on his face when he saw it was like $400 or $500 and not the $1,200 that they were selling a similar one for at the store.”

I asked about his gaming rigs, not seeing any on display. “Every space you see between the computers on that shelf was one. They go fast,” he said. Cabrales photographs most all of his pieces, and showed me a few to demonstrate how high-end some of these Frankenstein units can be.

It’s not always as straightforward as it should be to resuscitate pre-owned electronics. Big companies are increasingly designing hardware to prevent products from being reusable. Apple is notorious for soldering in its RAM (the memory storage component), forcing people with several-year-old Macs to either upgrade wholesale or send out and pay for special servicing. Tesla creates battery packs that have to be replaced entirely when just a few power cells fail. Even John Deere, which touts itself as champion of the working class, found itself on the wrong side of of a class-action lawsuit for prohibiting owners or third parties from repairing their own equipment, instead forcing them to use official service-people and official equipment. In backlash to planned obsolescence, the “right to repair” movement has gained tremendous traction over the past decade, winning legal protections for individuals’ right to repair their property, including automobiles, medical equipment, electronics and cell phones.

Recycle Rig Rescue lives by this notion: that obsolescence is just a mindset, and with a little imagination and a drive to tinker, many of the parts that looked like trash may well have long lives ahead of them.