Where Do Old iMacs Go Anyway? Right, They’re Upgraded Into Aquariums

Artists are finding new ways to put old gadgets to good use.

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Jun 20 2016, 11:00am

Nice computer, nicer aquarium. Image: Jake Harms

A few weeks ago, Matan Berkowitz, the founder of "GlassBeats," spoke at Berlin's annual Re:publica media conference – he showed how he hacked a pair of Google Glass into a MIDI controller activated by head movements.

"Google Glass did turn out to be somewhat of a flop in its first round," said Berkowitz. "It's about appropriating existing technology that failed to achieve its original goal and turning it into something new and exciting."

Electronic waste is a huge problem—up to 50 tonnes of e-waste is trashed every year globally. The U.S. is the world leader of tech trash, discarding three tonnes of e-waste a year; 595,000 tonnes of which are monitors. Almost half of it is shipped to India, China and Pakistan, proving to be a risk to public health and the environment. And there's an estimated 500 percent increase of e-waste expected by 2020.

But those helping the problem are creative. From VHS players being turned into toasters to circuit board lamps and floppy disc notepads all over Etsy, e-waste is being reused for new purposes, instead of tossing it out.

Probably the most popular example is the "Macquarium," an iMac monitor turned into a fish tank. The first Macquarium was built on a Macintosh 512K back in the 1990s and premiered at the MacWorld Expo Boston. Ever since, thousands of D.I.Y. ones have followed. The "Macquarium" name was first coined by Massachusetts tech journalist Andy Ihnatko, who has since created his own Macquariums. The goal, he said, was to make it look like "a really good screensaver."

Nebraska designer Jake Harms has been recycling old Macs into housewares he sells on his websites. "It's cool to take a computer that was on its way to be destroyed and give it a new life as a home or office decoration," said Harms. "I've always liked to recycle, so I try to have as little waste as possible. I even source and re-use bubble wrap and packaging materials for shipping."

Harms sells an iLamp, which is a G4 iMac recycled into a LED desk lamp for $399 (the D.I.Y. lap kits go for $150). "As the G3 iMacs get phased out, they are harder and more expensive for me to find," he said. "I'm always looking for more so if you happen to know where I can find some feel free to send me a message."

Some creators really dig into vintage technology, like cassette tapes. Musician and sound artist Alyce Santoro started working with cassette tapes 10 years ago. "I began by knitting with the tape, resulting in a fabric with a loose and loopy texture," she said. "A technically-proficient friend offered to try weaving the tape on a loom using a cotton warp. The result astounded both of us. We never expected such a beautiful, tightly-woven, functional material."

That led Santoro to founding Sonic Fabric, which takes old cassette tapes (mostly audio books) and turns them into a line of neckties. Created in collaboration with New York designer Julio Cesar, the ties are made from 50% cassette tape and 50% polyester. "I am constantly collecting and experimenting with the sounds that are recorded onto the tape before it's woven into the fabric," she said. "The current edition of fabric is recorded with my 'Between Stations' album, a collection of sound collages composed of loops and layers of samples collected over a five year period on and under the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn."

There are always artists to donate your e-waste to, like Miguel Rivera, who turns old hard drives into art sculptures, from toy cars to motorcycles and bots. And Jeff Avery, an IT technician and artist who has made Star Trek's USS Enterprise as a desk accessory, hard drive clocks and flowers. "It's better than a landfill," said Avery.