After over a decade of laptop use, I made the move a couple of months ago back to a desktop computer. An ex-corporate compact PC and a large widescreen monitor on a stand, and alongside them a proper mouse and my trusty IBM Model M that has served me for decades. At a stroke, the ergonomics of my workspace changed for the better, as I no longer have to bend slightly to see the screen.
The previous desktop PC was from an earlier time. I think it had whatever the AMD competitor to a Pentium 4 was, and if I recall correctly, its 512 MB of memory was considered to be quite something. On the back it had an entirely different set of sockets to my new one, a brace of serial ports, a SCSI port, and a parallel printer port. Inside the case, its various drives were served by a set of ribbon cables. It even boasted a floppy drive. By contrast the cabling on its successor is a lot lighter, with much less bulky connectors. A few USB plugs and a network cable, and SATA for its disk drive. The days of bulky multiway interconnects are behind us, and probably most of us are heaving a sigh of relief.
You Might Need That Cable One Day!
The trouble with multiway cables is that they were usually quite expensive in their day, so I still ascribe a bit of value to them. Thus even when my last SCSI drive or VGA monitor has shuffled off this mortal coil I still hang on to the cables, y’know, just in case. There is a bulging box of them lurking on a shelf somewhere, or if you are in my makerspace in Milton Keynes, a bunch of bulging boxes. Before I have a clearout, let’s take a closer look at these artifacts, assuming you won’t be offended by taking the cutter to otherwise perfectly good cables. Scanning the pile, the most numerous come into four main groups. Parallel SCSI, VGA, parallel printer, and because this is being written in Europe, SCART multiway adiovisual cables.
As you’d expect from a parallel interface, a SCSI cable takes the form of a bundle of wires, but the surprise on taking a peek inside the plug is that there is neither any shielding between the wires, nor are they twisted pairs. The parallel printer cable has a very similar construction: it was simply an 8-bit port on the host computer. VGA and SCART cables, on the other hand, contain a selection of co-ax shielded conductors for the video signals and a few single wires for control signals.
It was on considering how a cable like these might be reused that it really dawned on me how much we have moved on from the era of multiway cable interfaces. USB now covers most desktop-type devices once served by parallel SCSI, parallel, and serial ports, and nearly all audiovisual connectivity is fast heading towards HDMI. These fast serial interfaces deliver much higher data rates with much less copper involved.
It seems everywhere I look then there is a huge stack of cables that have become effectively useless. Unlike other technological shifts, such as for example from vacuum tubes to transistors, their usefulness did not tail away alongside the new technology, so it’s not as though they’ve outlived their service life. Instead they instantly became e-waste just as their technologies peaked, and it’s there we can find the origins of their ascribed value. If you have a pile of SCSI cables somewhere, did you hang onto them because you felt you’d need them again some day?
Re-Use, Keep, Or Recycle?
So what’s to be done? Can they be used for another purpose? Who uses a 40-way bundle of wires or a bundle of not-very-good co-ax these days anyway? I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments.
Meanwhile I’ve have a huge pile of cables to get rid of, and here’s the problem. There’s a value to the copper they contain but in most cases their insulation is PVC can be problematic to recycle and if inefficiently burned it can release toxic chemicals. Over the years there have been a series of scandals involving e-waste from develped countries exported to developing countries where it was burned in the open to extract the metals, but even though steps have been taken to end this practice it’s still a concern that cables be disposed of responsibly.
Here, my local government has centralised recycling facilities, and in turn passes sorted recycled material to specialised recycling companies. In the case of PVC-coated cables they are shredded to separate the copper from the plastic, and then the plastic is broken down to produce hydrocarbon feedstocks for the chemical industry.
In my hackerspace, we’re going to throw a work party to bring the cable pile down to manageable proportions. We’ve lived through the passing of an era without realising it, even though Brian Benchoff called it for Hackaday several years ago. Intevitably some years down the line we’ll find a SCSI peripheral and regret throwing out those SCSI cables, but given the space we’ll gain I think we’ll take the risk. The question is, will you?