Computers: Where’s the Green?

Manufacturers of information-technology hardware still aren’t eco-friendly enough. Pro or con?

Pro: Efforts Need More Byte

The need to check e-mail, Google (GOOG) something, or chat with buddies makes computers man’s new best friend. But seldom does the consumer stop and think about the environmental implications that accompany this new friendship. And PC makers choose not to worry as much as they should about eco-friendliness.

According to Greenpeace, computers had an average lifespan of just two years in 2005, down from six years in 1997. Electronics companies and consumers discard hundreds of thousands of old computers and electronic products each year, contributing to the 20 million to 50 million tons of e-waste generated annually. This electronic trash contains toxic chemicals and pollutants that wind up in the water we drink and the air we breathe. Thousands of old computers are illegally shipped to Asia, where they are dumped in scrap yards, leaving child laborers exposed to toxic chemicals and poisons.

Fortunately, an alternative exists: refurbishing companies. These companies can step in and restore machines to working order or at least ensure any unusable parts and materials are recycled rather than shipped to landfills.

In addition to using professional refurbishing, PC makers should reduce the amount of hazardous materials in their machines. Although Greenpeace praises Dell (DELL) as the most eco-friendly PC maker for providing time lines for limiting use of toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), it also criticizes the computer maker for having no PVC/BFR-free models on the market. Curiously, the popular Apple (AAPL) ranks at the bottom of eco-friendly rankings for the same reason: It has yet to offer consumers products free of PVC and BFR.

That brings us back to the issue of whether consumers even care. We should. It’s our environment, air, water, and well-being at stake. Most consumers claim they’re willing to pay a little extra for more eco-friendly computers, but many PC makers would beg to differ. And replacing hazardous materials with safer ones or adding a more energy-efficient power supply will only drive up the cost. Maybe this debate should also emphasize that consumers aren’t eco-friendly enough.

Con: Trust the Invisible Hand

It ain’t easy being green, sang Kermit the Frog in what now sounds like an apt theme song for computer manufacturers. Yes, they have a long way to go toward maximizing eco-friendliness, but most hardware makers are trying—diligently.

Apple, for one, promised to remove certain toxic substances by the end of 2008 with a few caveats and to recycle more electronics than any other manufacturer by 2010. And its iPhone is making good on this promise, fully complying with the European Reduction of Hazardous Substances directive. Dell has pledged to complete a similar toxin purge by 2009 and offers to plant a tree for each new computer if consumers are willing to pay an extra $2. HP (HPQ), Sony (SNE), and Toshiba created comprehensive recycling programs to safely dispose of, and recycle, old computer parts. IBM (IBM) is working on turning scrap silicon wafers into solar panels.

Computer makers’ partners are working hard on energy-efficient chips that reduce customers’ utility bills and cut down on the amount of power coal-fueled plants must generate, ultimately reducing greenhouse emissions. Meanwhile, manufacturers are working on new chargers that consume less power in standby mode.

These manufacturers still face a major obstacle to meeting the high standards of environmental groups: Making today’s computers requires nondegradable plastics and toxic metals, so there will inevitably be a nonbiodegradable or toxic component in virtually any new computer.

One day, new materials will clear the way for a new generation of electronics made of biodegradable, nontoxic materials. And clean energy from renewable sources will reduce greenhouse emissions from energy generation. But until that day, computer manufacturers are doing the best they can to be eco-friendly within their business environment and with the materials they must use.

We should hold all companies to a high standard of eco-friendliness, but ultimately we have stay realistic in our expectations and cognizant that computer companies need a lot of help from partners and engineers to become as green as environmental activists would like them to be.

*Editors’ Note: Steve Jobs promised to remove certain toxic substances by the end of 2008 with a few caveats and to recycle more electronics than any other manufacturer by 2010. BW.com regrets our lack of clarity.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Saba

I completely agree with Ms. Siddiqui's comments. Eloquent and well thought out. We, the consumers, need to think about the effect our favorite toys have on the world, and funds should be directed toward research on the topic.

Hamilton

Very sloppy journalism, unfortunately. Apple has committed to eliminate toxic substances by the end of the 2008, not 2010 as stated. This puts Apple at the front of the industry in taking the toxic elimination topic seriously.

Saba

Hamilton, I suggest you check your facts before you call anybody a sloppy journalist. While Apple has agreed to eliminate toxic materials by 2008, by 2010 Apple will be recycling more than Dell or HP. A minor point of confusion.

Debate Room Editor

Please note that for clarity, we have edited the statement about Apple. Thanks very much to Hamilton and Saba for writing in.

Writer

This issue strikes me as yet another example of "everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it." I know that I am inclined toward hypocrisy when it comes to environmental issues--I feel a certain sense of guilt about sending my old monitor who-knows-where when I replace it with the latest flat screen version. But it passes. And I can somehow convince myself that I am being eco-friendly by shopping online instead of driving to the mall. It's hard to accept that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

shadow

I can appreciate most who say they want to be included in being more "green" or environmentally responsible; however isn't all this computer junk such a tiny part of a problem next to all the other stuff being the main cause that it just isn't worth much time worrying about it?

Look at things like this--aren't there more active volcanos erupting around the world than ever before? This means they're spewing out more CO2 than all the cars in the entire world. Just one active volcano puts out more CO2 than all the cars running at once in the USA, and just think, that's only one.

Now think about how irresponsible South American countries are about destroying their forests and not replacing many trees. That adds to the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere. So unless someone can figure out how to cap most of the active volcanos in the world, there isn't much man can do. It's mostly nature as well as a phase this earth is going through.

It's still a good idea to be able to use less oil so we don't depend so much on the Arabs or anyone else for most of our energy needs. Also, if the alternatives can be cheaper than oil and safer than what we use now "oil, coal, and nuclear," then by all means let's use it, but don't say it's man who's mostly responsible--it's not.

On the efforts of computer companies, if it lowers the cost of computer systems and they are every bit as reliable, I say go for it.

Greg Fish

Shadow,

Actually, humans put out approximately 150 times more carbon dioxide then volcanos and this includes both calm and erupting volcanos. The USGS at HVO pins the numbers as such:

Volcanoes: 200,000,000 tons per year
Humans: 26,800,000,000 tons per year

http://volcano.und.edu/vwdocs/Gases/man.html
http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanowatch/2007/07_02_15.html

And volcanos aren't erupting more then ever either. In fact, despite more attention from the media to volcanism, they're actually in a pretty calm period right now.

But this is really not the point. One of the main problems with e-waste is the fact that it has toxins that, when not disposed of properly, can leach into soil and poison our groundwater on which we rely for our taps. Not everything that has to do with the environment boils down to carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. On this level, volcanic eruptions initially cool the planet by sending millions of tons of fine ash into the stratosphere and blocking out the sun. It would take a truly monster event like a magma fissure to heat up the planet, and something like that last happened 250 million years ago in the Permian period.

Unfortunately, alternatives are a ways away, most of them in conceptual or very early experimentation stages at this point, so there's not much that can be done beyond the recycling and substitution efforts already being conducted by computer makers.

Shle

If man can't do much, then why all this fuss? Let's all try our best to create better living conditions (not for us) for generations to come.

Andrew

You failed to mention that all of IBM's server brands (system x,i,p,z) are already compliant with the European Reduction of Hazardous Substances directive, as of earlier this year in 2007, showing that it is leading the way in green IT hardware.

Greg Fish

IBM states that its servers are compliant with the European Reduction of Hazardous Substances directive in its corporate responsibility reports, but I've not found a nod from a third party confirming the claim. In Apple's case, the nod (although very grudgingly) comes from Greenpeace.

Alexandria Dobkowski

My one computer (a slightly more energy-efficient laptop, rather than a desktop) comes from a company that seems committed to real environmental effort via recycling programs and fewer hazardous chemicals: Dell. I recycle my old cell phones. I don't see the need to buy a new piece of technology every month or even every year, just because Microsoft tells me to. I definitely don't need a Wii (although I love video games as much as the next person, so many other things are more important, including the heath of the planet). I know not every person can give up a car or every single convenience, but my life (based on a principle of considering the impact of my actions) is a lot easier than the lives of the people I see overwhelmed by consumerism--of which electronics are a mere part.

Just a brief comment for those of you who think that "no one does anything about it."

Deepesh

Hi Everyone,

We, as consumers, can't do much at our end except for being ready to chip in a few more bucks for an eco-friendly piece of technology. This should give the electronics' manufacturers a much needed fillip to think in an environment-friendly direction. Computers and other electronics rule our lives at the moment, and our dependency on these gadgets is bound to grow going forward.

Alexandria's effort is creditable, but this is a rare scenario, and more important, we don't have too much time left before the world is swamped with hazards of global warming and e-waste.

My two cents,
Deepesh

Brian

Until there are laws against using toxic substances, or these externalities are paid by the companies themselves, any environmental benefits are purely voluntary for the company, and we shouldn't expect big changes. It's not their fault the laws against emitting these substances is broken--it is ours.

sue

The idea of refurbishers is a good one. If they came door to door like Goodwill, they'd get a lot of business.

Join the Debate

 

Participate More!

Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!