Sustainability is an increasingly important problem when it comes to computing. Reduce, reuse, recycle is a popular motto for environmentally responsible consumption, but applying that to your computer hardware can be challenging.
Many proprietary operating systems essentially force a hardware upgrade upon you long before your old hardware is used up. If you own a computer with Windows, you've probably needed to purchase a new one to upgrade because your old one didn't meet the hardware requirements of the latest OS. Apple doesn't do any better, either. A MacBook Air I owned was essentially rendered obsolete by an upgrade to macOS Mojave in 2019.
By contrast, I run Linux on my three-and-a-half-year-old laptop, and it still runs like new. Because the Linux kernel is more efficient with resources than either Windows or macOS, it can run successfully on older hardware. I've never been forced to purchase new hardware in order to upgrade Linux.
The advantage of Linux is that it is free and open source. With a few notable exceptions, most Linux distributions are available free of charge, and they are not the product of a large technology company with profit in mind. Even businesses that offer Linux products know that profitability doesn't lie in selling software and forcing updates but in stellar support of what their customers are trying to do with that software.
Simply put, Linux is the best bet for a sustainable operating system.
Making Linux accessible
There was a time when Linux users were required to be more technologically savvy than the average computer user, but those days are a thing of the past. Most Linux distributions are as plug-and-play as their proprietary counterparts. Better yet, computers that are 10 or more years old can easily run any of the popular Linux distributions without modification. Instead of defining a computer's lifespan with the arbitrary benchmark of operating system support, you can measure it instead by the life of the hardware itself. That's how it should be. Hardware, like everything else, eventually fails, but software we can control.
This improved sustainability doesn't impede my workflow, either. I have access to a wide range of free and open source software and cloud-based systems that afford me ample opportunities to be creative while keeping my aging hardware out of the landfill.
Reuse hardware, reduce electronic waste
When deciding to refurbish an older computer, first determine how it will be used. You don't need lots of processing power if you are just surfing the web and writing with a word processor. But if you are working from home and using your computer for video conferencing with Jitsi or one of the proprietary solutions, you will need more RAM and processing power. In that case, I suggest (based on what's available in 2022) looking for an Intel i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 with at least 8 GB of RAM.
I put this concept to the test with that old MacBook Air I mentioned earlier. That system was given new life when I installed Linux in January 2020.
If you're not refurbishing and just need a computer, using Linux frees you from purchasing the latest hardware. It's easy to find serviceable laptops and desktops on FreeGeek and elsewhere that provide good hosts for Linux distributions. If you buy a computer from FreeGeek, it comes with Linux preinstalled and tested, and you're contributing to a community whose mission is "to sustainably reuse technology, enable digital access, and provide education to create a community that empowers people to realize their potential."
However you get to Linux, it's well worth learning and supporting. It's a sustainable OS that puts you in control of your data, your purchases, and the way you affect the environment.