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.
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.
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