Special Report: Are Computers Destroying The Earth?

With Earth Day just around the corner, two reporters cross swords over the question of whether computers and technology are helping or hurting the environment. See what they have to

April 20, 2006

17 Min Read
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Are computers and their electronic cohorts -- cell phones, PDAs, media players, and so on -- good or bad for the environment? It's a question that's likely to raise both tempers and voices. One person asserts that the benefits computers bring to humanity far outweigh the space they take up in our landfills, while another just as fervently contends that the waste from electronic equipment is doing so much damage to the earth that all our technological advances count for nothing.

Earth Day falls on April 22 this year, and in honor of the event, we've set freelance reporters Jennifer Maselli and Jennifer Bosavage to grapple over one of today's most important issues: the effect that technology has on our environment. Each writer will do her best to convince you why computers are saving the planet -- or wrecking it.

Once you've read their arguments, head on over to our reader poll and weigh in on the question: Are computers and technology good or bad for the environment?

If either article motivates you to do something about the situation, we have included a final page of tips on how you can embrace technology and be friendly to the environment at the same time.

To share your own tips or weigh in on the debate, please submit a comment to the blog Is Your PC EC?

Computers Don't Pollute -- People Do
By Jennifer Maselli

On deadline (okay, past deadline), I've situated myself and my laptop outside in the yard, where I'm enjoying the unseasonably warm, 74-degree weather as I type my thoughts on computers and the environment. Are computers good for the environment? The answer quite simply is yes.Take my current situation. Did I have to drive half an hour to an office to do my job? No. Telecommuting can save us from expending our limited and expensive supply of oil and from the pollution associated with driving. Combustion of fuel (primarily gasoline) accounts for emissions of 70 percent of smog precursors and 90 percent of carbon monoxide in urban areas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. One study by the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that $23 billion could be saved in transportation, environmental, and energy costs if there were a 10- to 20-percent increase in telecommuting.

Let's face it: It's people who are abusing the environment, not computers. Truth be told, computers are saving our earth -- from ourselves, in many cases. Scientists use air- and water-monitoring equipment, analytical software, computer-aided design software, map creation software, spreadsheets, word processing software, and the like to record, store, and maintain information about the state of our environment, which helps them accurately predict increases in pollution and its effects on the surrounding environment and the organisms that live there.

Computers might even save the Amazon rainforest from complete and utter destruction. Scientists from the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, MA, are working to advance the understanding of how human activities, such as deforestation, logging, and agriculture, along with the region's climate and rainfall patterns, fire dynamics, and other ecological variables, impact the rainforest's native ecosystems. How? With computer modeling, of course.

Recently, the center announced that its modeling project, called Amazon Scenarios, indicated that just by enforcing current laws, a million square kilometers of rainforest could escape destruction by 2050, but if nothing is done, an additional two million square kilometers of Amazon forest will disappear in less than a half a century. That destruction translates into the release of 17 billion tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

Many state governments use computers to monitor local businesses for compliance with environmental standards. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Compaq developed one such system calledEnvironment, Facility, Application, Compliance Tracking System, or eF.A.C.T.S., a comprehensive scheme that identifies environmental compliance problems and opportunities for promoting pollution prevention.Technology also helps scientists track natural disasters. Computer modeling allowed scientists to predict Hurricane Katrina's path well before she hit our shores, and telecommunications technology allowed that information to be passed along. It was the people who received that information that faltered in their response.   (continued)

Armed with the knowledge computers help them attain, humans can either sit on their laurels or take action. Take computer recycling. We know that computers and other electronic discards contain deadly toxins that can hurt us and the environment if they're dumped in landfills. And yet, according to the Computer Take Back Campaign, less than 10 percent of discarded computers are currently recycled. Many older computers are either stored in offices or homes, or (increasingly) tossed out with the trash, with no regard for the hazards contained within them.

Some of the remaining 10 percent that are actually recycled are handled by companies operating under strict environmental controls and high worker safety protections. But many other firms don't have such controls in place, and, well, human nature is to do the least we can get away with doing. So those firms go the cheaper route, removing the materials of value and sending the scrap to landfills or incinerators. Continuing down the cheap road, the U.S. sends as much as 80 percent of collected e-waste overseas to China and other Asian nations, where the process of dismantling computers poisons the air, land, water, and people, according to the Computer Take Back Campaign.

Energy consumption is another computing bugaboo, but today's computers consume far less energy than in the past. In 1993, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to purchase computer equipment that meets the government's Energy Star program requirements. And today, 95 percent of all monitors, 80 percent of computers, and 99 percent of printers sold in North America meet Energy Star standards. When you think of all the old energy-hogging stoves, refrigerators, washers, and dryers out there -- my parents' washer, for example, is more than 20 years old -- it's clear that computers are more energy-efficient than many other household appliances.

So to those crying over computers spreading toxins into the environment, I say: Computers are preventing us from destroying the environment in which we live. Toxins are going to come from somewhere -- we might as well produce them with computers, where some good can come of it. It's time to top blaming technology for our environmental problems and take a long, hard look in the mirror. Chances are you've got an old computer and a myriad of outdated cell phones stashed somewhere, your car might not be the most energy-efficient choice, and there had to have been one or two plastic containers you chose to ditch in the garbage can instead of the recycling bin. The problem is the people, not the computers.

Jennifer Maselli is a freelance writer with more than 10 years of journalism experience covering information technology and business issues. You can reach her at [email protected].

Don't Kid Yourself -- E-Waste Is Evil

By Jennifer Bosavage

We are a high-tech nation. We rely on computers for a wide array of activities, from the mundane (say, food shopping) to the entertaining (downloading day-old episodes of Lost) to the professional (anything and everything connected to running a business).Many of us want the latest and greatest. For every person you know who is sticking it out with a 486 PC, there are at least half a dozen who are on their second laptop within three years. We are also a nation that buys first and asks questions later. That's unfortunate, as one of those questions ought to be, "What happens to last year's computer model after I hoist it into the trash can?"

Sadly, the answer isn't what it should be. The United States does not recycle anywhere near the amount of electronics it could. Look at the numbers: According to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, Americans dispose of two million tons of electronic products each year, a figure that includes 50 million computers and 130 million cell phones. By 2010, the IAER estimates that will rise to roughly 400 million electronic units annually.

Here's another way to measure the problem: According to the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA), so-called e-waste represents from two to five percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream. (The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts that number at one to four percent.) The CRRA estimates that 300,000 tons of e-waste ended up in U.S. landfills in 2000, and the problem is expected to grow fourfold in the next few years.

That's in the U.S. alone. Add in the rest of the world – for example, China has four million PCs annually hitting the dump, according to a 2005 United Nations Environment Program report -- and the problem grows in magnitude. The same report found that between 20 million and 50 million tons of e-waste is produced worldwide annually. Where does it all go? In landfills, in burn barrels, and even transported to other countries to be disassembled and destroyed.

And that spells trouble for the environment. According to the CRRA, approximately 70 percent of the heavy metals found in landfills -- including lead, mercury, and cadmium -- comes from electronic equipment discards. Each CRT monitor, for example, contains an average of four to eight pounds of lead. Lead is known to cause brain damage (particularly in children), mercury is a neurotoxin, and cadmium is toxic even in small amounts. In a landfill, those pollutants can easily leach into the ground, eventually reaching the water supply. When incinerated, they pollute our air.Granted, the United States does have some pretty strict environmental policies, including prohibitions against throwing electronic devices into landfills. However, that's not the case throughout the world. Take China, for example. There, electronic equipment is legally dumped into any available landfill. Some reports state that adults and even children are disassembling electronic components by hand, exposing them to lead and other toxins. Last summer, AsiaNews.it reported, British Greenpeace International scientist Kevin Brigden tested streams in Guiyu, China, and found that acid baths (used to separate precious metals in old circuit boards) were leaching into them. The streams had pH readings of 1 or 2, the level of an acid powerful enough to disintegrate a penny after a few hours, according to Brigden.  (continued)

Much of the toxic e-waste in China and other third-world nations comes from our shores. In 2002, the Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition published a report, Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, which exposed how many of those old PCs and printers were winding up not in the hands of second-hand parts dealers, but in the junk heaps of third-world countries. The report found that as much as 50 to 80 percent of U.S. electronic waste that is collected in the name of recycling actually gets shipped out of the country.

Looking For Solutions
In response to environmental concerns about safe disposal, several PC makers in the United States have recycling programs that seem to have produced encouraging results. HP says it is on track to recycle 1 billion pounds of electronics by the end of 2007. Dell has said that during its fiscal 2004, it collected 35 million pounds of computer gear for recycling. The EPA notes that nowadays recyclers recover more than 100 million pounds of materials from electronics each year.

An appealing fix to the problem might be just to pass more punitive legislation. Companies that don't comply get fined, and the fines are put toward cleaning up the mess. But in reality, there are plenty of laws on the books. Many of them aren't enforced, and the fines aren't always put toward cleanup. On top of that, the goal shouldn't be to encourage an endless cycle of pollute, fine, and clean up, but rather, to start to curb the amount of waste created in the first place.

By cutting down on the amount of e-waste, we -- manufacturers and users -- are taking responsibility for the situation we have created. We're not simply passing the blame to the computer makers: "Here, you made it, you deal with it." That's a surefire way to encourage companies to charge for disposal, or to put a surcharge on new computers to pay for future recycling. In other words, they are directly passing the cost along to the consumer. Both those solutions are in use now, but neither is particularly popular.

A better way would be to offer monetary incentives to companies to use environmentally-friendly materials. This can take the form of easy-to-attain tax breaks for companies that can prove their products are either disposed of properly or contain a certain percentage of recycled or nonhazardous material. Ideally, a reputable industry specializing in e-waste could grow and thrive, not because businesses fear government reprisals, but because it will be economically advantageous for them to participate. That kind of environment can only come about if users communicate loudly and clearly that irresponsible dumping will not be supported with their purchasing dollars.Jennifer Bosavage is a freelance technology writer specializing in small business issues. You can reach her at [email protected].

Be Part Of The Solution
By Jennifer Bosavage and Jennifer Maselli

Here's how you can help yourself to a computer while keeping yourself in Mother Nature's good graces:

  • Look for computer models labeled with the Energy Star symbol.

  • Hang onto your computer just a little bit longer. Typically, in the workplace, PCs and notebooks have a lifespan of about three years. Try to tack an extra six to 12 months onto that. See if an upgrade will work -- add more memory, a second hard drive, or a better graphics card. And when you do buy a new computer, get one with enough muscle to withstand a few software upgrades.

  • Donate your equipment to charity. Call the local church, synagogue, or after-school program for PC donations, or a women's shelter for cell phone donations. This is a particularly attractive option for those who really want or need frequent upgrades: The charity gets relatively new equipment and the donor isn't polluting the environment.

    Plus, there can be tax benefits to donating equipment. For example, the Computer Recycling Center will reimburse shipping fees for sending it a Mac PowerBook G3 or iBook, or a PC with a Pentium 2, 3, 4 or Celeron chip; plus it will send you a charitable donation receipt.

  • Find a local facility that can lawfully dispose of your electronic equipment. (That includes no landfilling and no sending components to third-world countries.) An excellent Web site for locating reputable recyclers is Earth 911. By typing in your ZIP code, you'll be directed to the nearest credible recycling service. Of course, you'll want to do a little homework and ask a few questions to ensure your PC is not just going into a dumpster somewhere. Fees also vary among providers.

  • Check your town for e-waste removal services it might offer; some municipalities offer electronics collection as part of household hazardous waste collections, or hold special e-waste collection events.

    Important: Whether you donate, recycle, or otherwise dispose of your computer, be sure to safely remove personal data from your equipment first. See Data Disposal: A Crushing Problem? for tips.

  • Check into computer manufacturers' recycling efforts. Dell and HP have comprehensive programs that cost the computer user little or no money.

    Also, see if the manufacturer has signed the Electronics Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship. Some of the companies that have signed the pledge are investing in technology to reduce harmful waste in the manufacturing process; for example, Sony has invested in bio-based plastics, which replace materials reliant on toxic chemicals that pose avoidable risks to human health and the environment. See Greenpeace International's How The Companies Line Up page for information about electronics companies' commitment to removing hazardous substances from their products.

  • Ask your employer about telecommuting to work once or twice a week; it'll save on gas, and lower carbon monoxide and smog levels.

  • Shop online. Think of all the things you can buy online these days: groceries, books, music, clothes, furniture, even movie rentals. Sure, delivery people still have to burn gas to bring, say, groceries to your house, but one delivery truck bringing food to a dozen homes in the same neighborhood is more energy-efficient than a dozen people driving to the supermarket separately.

    To share your own tips or weigh in on the debate, please submit a comment to the blog Is Your PC EC?

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