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UN study shows environmental consequences from ongoing boom in personal computer sales


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.

Researchers found that manufacturing one desktop computer and 17-inch CRT monitor uses at least 240 kg (530 lbs) of fossil fuels, 22 kg (50 lbs) of chemicals and 1,500 kg (3,330 lbs) of water – a total of 1.8 tonnes (1.9 English tons) of materials -- roughly the weight of a rhinoceros or sports utility vehicle (SUV).

While computers become smaller and more powerful, their environmental impacts are increasing. The materials- and energy-intense 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.

"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."

Sales of personal computers have exploded. The 300,000 "desktop" computer sales in the U.S. in 1980 increased 500% the following year and doubled again a year later. Today, despite the high-tech meltdown of the late 1990s, computer sales grow about 10% per year and more than 130 million computers are being sold each year around the world. By the end of 2002, one billion PCs had been sold worldwide.

The study examines a variety of environmental impacts associated with computer production processes. The main impacts are believed to be:
  • Significant energy use in the production and operation of computers

  • Possible long-term health effects on workers, families and neighboring communities due to chemical exposure and emissions from production stages such as microchip fabrication.

  • Possible health impacts due to exposure to hazardous materials contained in computer products, in particular brominated flame retardants and lead. 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.

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 computer’s 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 Union’s (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 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. 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", 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!

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