One Billion Computers Devouring Earth's Resources
TOKYO, Japan, March 8, 2004 (ENS) - Personal computers are eating their way into the planet's resource base, and their useful lives must be extended to lighten the burden they put on Earth's air, land and water, according to a new report from the United Nations University (UNU) on the environmental consequences of the information technology revolution.
Computer sales are growing about 10 percent per year and more than 130 million computers are being sold each year around the world, the authors found. By the end of 2002, one billion personal computers had been sold worldwide.
"Today it is hard to imagine life without one of these indispensable 21st century tools," said Eric Williams, the UNU scientist who leads the Information Society and Environment Issues project and Ruediger Kuehr, who co-edited the book. "But it is exactly because they have become so ubiquitous that we must be aware of the negative impacts of the PC boom."
While computers become smaller and more powerful, their environmental impacts are increasing, say Williams and Kuehr.
They government incentives worldwide are needed to extend the life of personal computers and slow the growth of high-tech trash.
The average 53 pound (24 kg) desktop computer with monitor requires at least 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to manufacture, the authors say, and that makes it much more materials intensive than an automobile or refrigerator, which only require one to two times their weight in fossil fuels to make.
The researchers found that manufacturing one desktop computer and 17 inch CRT monitor uses at least 530 pounds (240 kg) of fossil fuels, 50 pounds (22 kg) of chemicals and 3,330 pounds (1,500 kg) of water – a total of 1.8 metric tons of materials - roughly the weight of a sports utility vehicle.
The materials and energy intensive production process, greater adoption of PCs worldwide, plus the rapid rate at which they are discarded for newer machines, add up to "growing mountains of garbage and increasingly serious contributions to resource depletion, environmental pollution and climate change," they warned.
"This study clearly shows that our current understanding of the health and environmental impacts of computers is inadequate," said UN Under Secretary-General and UNU Rector Hans van Ginkel. "We can no longer ignore the potential for serious long term problems."
Environmental impacts associated with computer production processes include energy use in their production and operation. The high-tech nature of computer manufacturing makes it extremely energy intensive, the authors say, and therefore likely to have a "significant" effect on climate change and depletion of fossil fuel resources.
Although computers use relatively less energy when they are in operation, the combination of a high-energy manufacturing process and a short lifespan raise its lifetime environment related energy impacts to about the same level as a refrigerator, which is one of the more energy intensive appliances in the home, say Kuehr and Williams.
Hundreds or even thousands of chemicals, many of them toxic, are used to produce a computer and a set of specific health concerns has arisen regarding chemical exposure in the production process. There are possible long term health effects on workers, families and neighboring communities due to chemical exposure and emissions from production stages such as microchip fabrication, the authors warn.
Possible health impacts due to exposure to hazardous materials contained in computer products, in particular brominated flame retardants and lead is a "pressing" concern, the authors say. 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.
Former workers in semiconductor fabrication facilities have filed lawsuits alleging that exposure to chemicals in their work is linked to birth defects and cancer. "These suits are still pending and fears may well be exaggerated, but there is scant scientific evidence to prove nor disprove links to birth defects and cancers," write Kuehr and Williams. "There is a need for epidemiological studies, yet little action taken to see that these are done."
A group of chemicals called brominated flame retardants used in circuit boards and plastic computer cases is of particular concern. Recent studies in the United States, Canada and Sweden show that concentrations of these compounds in humans have been increasing rapidly. In sufficient dosages, they can cause neuro-developmental disorders and possibly cancer.
Monitors, and to a lesser extent computers, contain quantities of heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, which pose potential health risks to production workers and environmental risks to water supplies near landfills where they are eventually dumped.
Among those involved in the UNU study, there is broad agreement that measures to extend the useful life of existing equipment are the most important pieces of a proposed framework for the environmental management of computers in the future.
"Every computer user has a role to play. Users should think carefully about whether they really need to buy a new computer; if upgrading the existing machine could serve the same purpose," Williams said. "Promptly selling old machines to the used-product market is also important."
Because so much of the energy used over the life cycle of a computer is in manufacturing high-tech components, which are usually destroyed in recycling processes to recover raw materials, the energy savings potential of reselling or upgrading is some five to 20 times greater than recycling, says Williams.
Much electricity is wasted as computers also tend to be left on when not in use, even overnight. Many users falsely believe that turning off machines can harm the components. In practice, turning computers on and off shortens their lifespan only after around 20 years of use, not relevant for most equipment.
Spurred by the EnergyStar certification program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most computers are now are equipped with standby modes which automatically put the computer into low power mode when not being used. But, the authors say, the Energy Star label becomes meaningless for a great many computers, as they never actually go into standby mode in real life. One major reason is that computers connected to a network will often be "kept awake" by traffic from servers and other machines.
The UNU report identifies the options available to national, regional and local governments that wish to lessen the environmental and health impacts of computers.
The study analyzes the European Union's new Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), legislation which will mandate recycling of computers throughout the EU starting 2005.
Contributors Klaus Hieronymi and Axel Schneider say the actual environmental benefit and economic performance of the take-back system will depend crucially on how it is implemented.
One model is a monolithic consortium dedicated simply to meeting official recycling targets at a fixed fee. This will likely lead to low-tech, unresponsive system that extracts little environmental or economic value from end-of-life machines. Another model is a pluralistic organization devoted to continuous improvement in maximizing profit and environmental benefit.
"Decisions taken from now on how WEEE is implemented in practice will have a big effect on what kind of system we end up with," says Hieronymi.
The study notes that none of the existing legislation in Europe or elsewhere really tries to extend the lifetimes of computers and components, despite the huge environmental and economic potential.
According to Kuehr, of the UNU Zero Emissions Forum, some government policies such as taxation rules even have the opposite effect of shortening lifespan.
"The tax system should assess refurbished PCs at least equal to new ones," Kuehr says. An incentive system for those trying to prolong the lifespan of their IT products would mean depreciation according to the age of the machines.
"Such a system would easily create additional impetus for manufacturers to reconsider design approaches and make products more easily upgradeable," he says.
Electronics firms are trying to reduce the environmental burdens of their products. In the book, environmental managers at Fujitsu Siemens and IBM detail the environmental policy, management systems, eco-labeling, and take-back, resale, and recycling measures implemented at their corporations.
While many of these activities have been successful in reducing impacts, greater interest from customers and regulators in environmental protection would help them further improve. For example, the first "Eco-PC," was produced by Siemens Nixdorf in 1993, but "sales were lower than expected" said Harald Podratsky - "even environmental organizations chose cheaper conventional models."
Decisions by computer users have a huge effect on their environmental impacts. Jerry Velasquez says "consumer choices are important across the board: while purchasing, during use and at end-of life."
When purchasing, going with a used computer puts off for a while the production of a new machine.
When using a computer, turning it off at night and making sure that standby modes are working go a long way to reducing electricity consumption.
At the end-of-life, selling or donating the computer can often supply the right computing power to another user who doesn't need such a powerful machine. Many manufacturers now offer free computer recycling programs, but require the consumer to take the trouble to find out where and how to send the computer.
"Consumers are often not aware of the things they can do can to reduce the environmental impacts of their computers," said Williams. "They often don't realize that there are impacts to be concerned about. There's a real need for awareness building, instigating this process is one of the big reasons we did this book.
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