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UN Report Warns of Environmental Impact of High-Tech 'Trash' - 2004-03-14


It is hard to imagine life without a computer. And it's no wonder. The industry is growing at a rate of 10 percent per year with some 130 million new PCs manufactured annually around the globe.

The world's one-billionth personal computer came off the assembly line in 2002. A new U.N. study calls for government incentives to extend the useful life of personal computers. The aim is to slow the growth of high-tech trash that is polluting the environment and causing health problems.

United Nations University scientist Eric Williams is co-author of the study called Computers and the Environment. He says most consumers are not aware that the average desktop computer with monitor requires 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to manufacture.

"The findings of the study regarding energy materials use are that in order to make a desk top computer with a CRT monitor, the total amount of fossil fuels is 240 kilograms," said Mr. Williams. "The amount of chemicals - many of which are toxic - is 22 kilograms and the amount of water is 1500 kilograms."

The U.N. report warns of the environmental impact of this energy intensive manufacturing process and the growing mounds of computer garbage.

Williams: When we say environmental impacts, on one hand there is energy use, which is actually more significant than people thought in the past. Energy relates to climate change and it also resource depletion. There are also health impacts in the form of possible health effects on workers in IT [information technology] factories and everyday citizens to substances leaking out of computers that end up in landfills and end up affecting our environment.

Skirble: The report says that extending computers' useful life is a key issue.

Williams: Yes. For example, from an energy perspective, either reselling your computer so that somebody else can use it and not buy a new computer for a year or two, or upgrading it, which means changing the microprocessor and hard drive and memory. Reselling or upgrading your computer can save five to 20 times more energy than recycling it. That suggests that as a strategy for environmental management of computers that extension of life is environmentally effective and it is also economically effective. It is also economically effective because computer recycling at least the capital-intensive kind that we do in the rich world - is expensive. It ends up [costing] $30,$40, $50 to recycle a computer. Also, if you extend the [computer's] life, it means fewer computers going into the waste stream, which reduces the end-life burden of computers.

Skirble: Let's talk about [some practical] here-and-now solutions [to this problem]. What simple things can consumers do?

Williams: First of all, ask yourself the question, Why? Do I need that? And then perhaps depending on your computing needs, try to look into [buying] a used computer. Maybe it is right for you. When you are using the computer try to make sure that the standby modes you have these low energy standby modes that put the computer into a sleep when you are not using it. These actually can do a lot to save energy, but a lot of times in practice they are not actually working. And, finally, when you are done with your computer, don't throw it in your closet and let it sit for a couple of years, try to sell it to somebody else."

Skirble: Is the burden largely a consumer problem? Are there any incentives for manufacturers to produce a more eco-friendly, longer- lasting computer?

Williams: I think that there is clearly progress that could be made on that. I think that one problem has been given the lack of consumer awareness of the environmental impacts of computers has been a lack of consumer demand to put pressure on manufacturers to bring a market for green products and also to the government in order to have more impetus to make government policies to deal with this. So really, you have the triad of companies and government and consumers and really the actions from the three of them are needed to make this work.

Skirble: Do any incentives exist now to encourage manufactures to produce a more eco-friendly, longer lasting product?

Williams: The main incentive now is probably legislation from the European Union, because they have put into place two directives: one which mandates recycling of computers all over Europe, and the other which bans the inclusion of certain toxic substances.

Skirble: Are there any other models for regulation? Are any other groups doing anything?

Williams: I'm saying the European Union is the only region that is looking at various strict region-wide regulation. But there is a lot of activity all over the world to deal with this. For instance, Japanese manufacturers are voluntarily offering lead free products. And al the major manufacturers are trying to implement collection systems and recycling systems and also to a limited extent still selling their used machines online.

United Nations University scientist Eric Williams says he hopes the new report promotes environmental stewardship among computer manufacturers, encourages governments to implement new eco-friendly policies and stimulates awareness among computer users.