When it comes to computers and the environment, the main concerns come from the consequences of creating and disposing of the machine.

These indispensable machines have birthed a digital world of information and applications at the click of a button, revolutionizing the way individuals, societies and enterprises work, communicate and thrive. Integral to virtually every possible human activity, the benefits of computers are manifold: from creating fancy graphics to storing unimaginable amounts of data, these horse-powered tools facilitate greater productivity in businesses, government offices and households alike. No wonder that a serious look on their negative implications is upon us, as they become increasingly ubiquitous.

First invented in the 1940s, electronic computers maintained a slow rate of progression in technology and production until the 1980s. Then, with the development of the IBM Personal Computer (PC’s) and their clones, sales of computers increased dramatically.

The 300,000 desktop computer sales in the U.S. in 1980 increased 500 percent the following year and doubled again a year later. Despite the high-tech meltdown of the late 1990s, computer sales grew about 10 percent a year and more than 130 million computers were sold each year around the world. By the end of 2002, one billion PC’s had been sold worldwide.

This increase, coupled with the changing technology, led to obsolescence and created large amounts of electronic waste.

While obsolete computers are a valuable source for secondary raw materials, they can also be a source of toxins and carcinogens, if not treated appropriately.

The metals contained in PC’s commonly include aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gallium, gold, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, palladium, platinum, selenium, silver and zinc. Eight of these metals (shown in italics) are listed as hazardous by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), one of the Federal laws that control the disposition of waste in the United States.

An average 24-kilogram desktop computer requires at least 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to be manufactured – much more materials-intensive than an automobile or refrigerator, which require 1-2 times their weight in fossil fuels.

Materials, as well as energy-intense production processes, greater adoption of PC’s worldwide and the rapid rate at which they are discarded for newer machines, add up to mountains of electronic garbage and increasingly serious contributions to resource depletion, environmental pollution and global climate change.

A United Nations University (UNU) study examines environmental impacts associated with computer production processes. The main impacts associated are believed to be:

  • Significant energy use in the production and operation of computers.
  • Possible long-term health effects on workers, families and neighboring communities due to chemical exposure and emissions.
  • Possible health impacts due to exposure to hazardous materials. (The main risk of exposure is probably from computers that have been dumped in landfills or from environmentally unsafe recycling processes in the developing world).
Computer components can be recaptured through recycling and used again. Recycling also eliminates the need to obtain these elements from nature, decreasing the impact of computer production on the environment.

By eliminating e-waste, the environment is protected, resources are saved, organizations benefited and the quality of environment improved significantly.

Consumer recycling: Options include donating computers directly to charities that may offer tax benefits, sending devices back to their original manufacturers or getting them to a convenient recycling or refurbishing agent.

Some manufacturers also offer a free replacement service when purchasing a new PC and either purchase or recycle all brands of working and broken laptops and notebook computers.

A majority of these companies are also generalized electronic waste recyclers. Notable online auctions, like eBay are yet another alternative for consumers willing to resell their PC’s through a safe, self-managed and competitive channel. Computer leasing programs offer potential for increasing recycling and reuse rates, as well.

Corporate recycling: Businesses seeking a cost-effective way to recycle large amounts of computer equipments face a more complicated process. Although they have the option of contacting manufacturers for recycling, in cases where computer equipments come from a variety of manufacturers, it may be more efficient to hire a third-party contractor for carrying out the recycling arrangements.

Many companies offer multiple services: they pick up unwanted equipment from businesses, wipe the data clean from the system and provide an estimate of the product’s remaining value.

For valuable unwanted items, some contractors end up buying the excess hardware and selling refurbished products at affordable prices.  According to the RCRA, companies are liable for compliance with regulations even if the recycling process is outsourced. Such risks can be mitigated by acquiring waivers of liability, certificates of data destruction, signed confidentiality agreements and random audits of information security.

The good news is that computer recycling in all forms appears to be on the upswing. More and more, our computers of today will contain materials gleaned from recycled materials.

That will be a good thing for the environment.

References:

Earth911.com on computers and environment

Wikipedia: computer recylcing

Wikipedia: Computers and the environment

U.N. University

EOEarth.org on computer recycling

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