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PCs: the latest waste mountain
Ian Sample, science correspondent
The Guardian, Monday March 8, 2004
First it was the fridge mountain, then it was the tyre mountain. Now discarded
computers have got environmentalists worried.
According to a study released today our relentless appetite for buying new
computers - and the ease with which we throw out old ones - is having a major
impact on the environment. Instead of dumping our old computers after a few
years, we should be using them for longer, or selling them on secondhand to
reduce demand for new ones, the authors say.
Scientists at the UN university in Tokyo estimate that to make a new computer
requires at least 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals.
The manufacture of one computer consumes 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of
chemicals and 1,500kg of water.
Car manufacturing is far less energy intensive, says the study, with each
vehicle requiring at most twice its weight in fossil fuels.
Computers have found their way into nearly every home and office, yet sales
keep soaring. In 2002, the number of personal computers in the world topped
1bn and sales continue to rise at around 130m a year.
"It's hard to imagine life without one of these indispensable 21st century
tools, but it is exactly because they have become so ubiquitous that we must
be aware of the negative impacts of the PC boom," said Eric Williams, an
expert in the environmental impact of technology and co-author of the study.
The study criticises governments for concentrating on recycling instead of
introducing measures to reduce the numbers of new computers people buy, or
encouraging them to buy secondhand machines.
"It's more effective to try and reduce and reuse things first and then worry
about recycling," said Dr Williams.
The study calls for governments to introduce tax breaks for people buying used
computers instead of new ones. "A lot of computer manufacturers sell used
computers with warranties, but many people are simply not aware of it," he
European legislation demands that when computers are finally taken to the tip,
70% of the materials used to make them is recycled.
Copper, gold and silver can all be recovered from discarded computers. But
tonnes of old desktop PCs are still shipped to developing countries for
recycling, where the processes used - such as baths of acid to strip metals
from circuit boards - can be environmentally damaging.
Without incentives to make computers last longer, their environmental impact
will continue to grow.
"People normally keep fridges for 15 years, but you see computers getting
thrown out after just three years, so five times as many computers are being
dumped. We're certainly looking at a worsening problem," said Dr Williams.
The study also calls on computer manufacturers to help extend the useful
lifetime of their machines by making them easier to upgrade, so instead of
having to completely replace them, people can simply buy new parts.
But, as Andrew Blazer, who studies environmental impact at Imperial College,
London, points out, companies will only change their practices if there is
something in it for them.
"Unless there's a benefit to business, it won't be done. It's all very well
for the UN to bleat, but business will only change if there's an incentive,"