How Linux can reduce your plastic load

As I mentioned in my answers to Beth Terry, I’ve given up gratuitous electronics purchases to reduce my plastic use. Not that I’m missing anything, except the expense. But since 2003, I’ve been using one version or another (the so-called “distributions”) of the Linux operating system to make the most of my home and work computers. And for most of that time, I’ve been using Ubuntu Linux, which has become the leading choice for desktop users.

Ubuntu Linux is an example of free and open-source software, meaning that it is free to share and adapt, and as a matter of practice free of charge to download. It tends to be easier on hardware resources, and since people can adapt it, old hardware tends to be supported much better than, say, Windows Vista. Indeed, computers that fail to run Vista can usually run Ubuntu Linux or another version of Linux. (You can get Linux to run on a Roomba, if you’re so inclined.)

If you don’t throw away a computer — and we’ve seen what becomes of many “recycled” computers — and buy a new one but continue to use the old one, you’ve saved a lot of plastic, embedded energy, toxic metals and other resources. I still use an eight-year-old computer (though not as my main machine) that started life wheezing under Windows ME.

Now, Ubuntu Linux isn’t for everyone, but it’s for more people than who currently use it. To be fair, hardcore gamers won’t find their favorite titles and there is some proprietary software — like Photoshop and Quicken — that’s not available and top-flight users of those software packages may not like the free and open-source alternatives. And it is different. But that doesn’t stop scads of people from going from Windows XP to Mac OS X, and I think that’s a further leap in the feel of computing than XP to Ubuntu Linux. The least you can do is try.

The usual way to try Ubuntu Linux is to download the software (a “iso”) and burn it to a CD ROM, and then when booting up your computer, force it to start Ubuntu Linux from the CR ROM drive instead. This is the so-called Live CD. If you furiously press the Escape, F2 or F12 key — it tends to be one or the other — as the computer starts up, you’ll see you have the option to boot from something other than your hard drive. Choose the CD ROM or optical drive, and in a couple of minutes you’ll see a different face on your computer . . . . The underlying operating system is still there, and will go back to it the next time you start your computer.

You can also order a pre-formatted CD ROM free-of-charge (though that can take ages to arrive; the last one I got shipped from Belgium) or buy one for a few dollars from any number of vendors; there are tons on eBay, for instance. (The current version is 8.10, code named “the Intrepid Ibex”.) But wait — CD ROMs are plastic, perhaps too much for scruples when there’s an alternative. If you already have a USB key drive of 1 gigabyte or more, you can have a Live USB instead, and they’re better because it’s faster and closer to what it would be if you installed it properly. Also, you can have a “persistence layer” that lets you save files you create. It’s like carrying around the essence of your computer in your hand. (Some people do; handy if you don’t have a laptop and have to use Uncle Bob’s computer when visiting family for the holidays!) Someone who has a current, working Ubuntu Linux setup and the download file can make a such a Live USB, like one candle lighting another. And if you live in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, I might be able to help.


(Soon I’ll review a new computer that has Ubuntu Linux pre-installed.)

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I really wish I could switch to Linux, but I have to be able to work from home, and my office relies on QuickBooks and Outlook, etc. So I think I’m stuck with Windows for now. But I did have fun upgrading our office machines to Windows XP (from Windows 2000) in order to avoid buying new machines. And I used the CD-Rom method you described.


  2. I hear you: the lack of a Linux version of QuickBooks — even though it is proprietary — is a major impediment for large-scale deployments of Linux in office settings.

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