Average desktop system requires 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to make; authors call for governments worldwide to help slow growth of high-tech trash
Government incentives are quickly needed worldwide to extend the life of personal computers and slow the growth of high-tech trash, according to a new United Nations University (UNU) report into the environmental consequences of the information technology revolution.
The average 24 kg (53 lbs) desktop computer with monitor requires at least 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to manufacture, much more materials intensive than an automobile or refrigerator, which only require 1-2 times their weight in fossil fuels.
The high-tech nature of computer manufacturing makes it extremely energy intensive and therefore significant for 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.
Health impacts of toxic chemicals
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. Another pressing concern is the environmental and health impacts of emissions of hazardous substances from discarded computer equipment.
While the microchip industry has fewer accidental injuries compared to heavy industries, concerns have arisen over whether possible health effects of long-term exposure of workers to toxic chemicals. 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. 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 significant 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.
"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."
Extending computers useful life seen as key issue
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.
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 5-20 times greater than recycling, says Williams.
"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. Promptly selling old machines to the used-product market is also important," he says.
Barriers to electricity savings in using computers
A study commissioned by the US Department of Energy showed that 3% of US electricity consumption in 2000 was due to IT equipment. Book contributor Danielle Cole says that while the increased popularity of liquid crystal displays over CRTs tends to lower electricity use by computers, newer generations of microprocessors and larger monitors tend to use much more than their predecessors.
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 US 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. However, 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.
End-of-life management opportunities (and risks)
UNU identifies several options available to national, regional and local governments intent on mitigating the environmental and health impacts of computers. These include: the environmental regulation of manufacturing processes (e.g. setting standards for emissions from semiconductor factories) and the environmental characteristics of computer products (e.g. banning the use of lead and other heavy metals); mandatory product take-back, recycling systems and voluntary programs like eco-labeling; and funding research and analysis, as well as education and public awareness campaigns, on the environmental impacts of computers.
The study analyzes the European Unions (EU) Directive on 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."
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."
Environmental empowerment of the user
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 obviates for a time 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 doesnt 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. They often dont realize that there are impacts to be concerned about. Theres a real need for awareness building, instigating this process is one of the big reasons we did this book", says Williams.
Established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1973, UNU is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable development and the use of science and technology to advance human welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo.
Terry Collins | EurekAlert!
Upcycling 'fast fashion' to reduce waste and pollution
03.04.2017 | American Chemical Society
Litter is present throughout the world’s oceans: 1,220 species affected
27.03.2017 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
Two researchers at Heidelberg University have developed a model system that enables a better understanding of the processes in a quantum-physical experiment...
Glaciers might seem rather inhospitable environments. However, they are home to a diverse and vibrant microbial community. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they play a bigger role in the carbon cycle than previously thought.
A new study, now published in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows how microbial communities in melting glaciers contribute to the Earth’s carbon cycle, a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
21.04.2017 | Health and Medicine
21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy