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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 10:02 GMT
Computers 'must be greener'
By Tim Hirsch
BBC environment correspondent

Computer recycling
The first option should be to upgrade a machine - not throw it away
Worldwide efforts are needed to reduce the environmental damage caused by computer equipment, according to a United Nations research group.

A study says making the average PC requires 10 times the weight of the product in chemicals and fossil fuels.

Many of the chemicals are toxic, while the use of fossil fuels help contribute to global warming.

And the short lifetime of today's IT equipment leads to mountains of waste, the UN University report says.

1: Lead in cathode ray tube and solder
2: Arsenic in older cathode ray tubes
5: Antimony trioxide as flame retardant
4: Polybrominated flame retardants in plastic casings, cables and circuit boards
3: Selenium in circuit boards as power supply rectifier
6: Cadmium in circuit boards and semiconductors
7: Chromium in steel as corrosion protection
8: Cobalt in steel for structure and magnetivity
9: Mercury in switches and housing

That waste is then dumped in landfill sites or recycled, often in poorly managed facilities in developing countries, leading to significant health risks.

The authors say that both manufacturers and computer users across the world should be given greater incentives to upgrade or re-use computer hardware instead of discarding it.

In life and death

As computers become smaller and more energy-efficient, their environmental burden might be expected to decrease - but the study suggests that the opposite is happening.

It found that manufacturing a 24kg PC with monitor needs at least 240kg of fossil fuels to provide the energy, and 22kg of chemicals. Add to that, 1.5 tonnes of water, and your desktop system has used up the weight of a sports utility vehicle in materials before it even leaves the factory.

Compare this with cars or refrigerators, which use only between one and two times their weight in fossil fuels, and it is clear that making more than 130 million computers worldwide has a significant impact.

The study says people could be exposed to health risks at both ends of the short lifespan of computer equipment.

Chemicals such as brominated flame retardants and heavy metals including lead and cadmium pose potential risks to factory workers and users of water supplies near landfill sites where old computers are dumped.

Owning the problem

Little research on these impacts has been carried out, and there are several law suits pending from workers at semiconductor plants who claim their work is linked to birth defects and cancer.

The rector of the UN University in Tokyo, Hans van Ginkel, said: "This study clearly shows that our current understanding of the health and environmental impacts of computers is inadequate

Users should think carefully about whether they really need to buy a new computer
Eric Williams, report co-author

"We can no longer ignore the potential for serious long-term problems."

The study welcomes new legislation coming into force this year in the European Union requiring the electronic industry to take responsibility for safe disposal of used equipment, but it says the environmental benefits will depend on how it is implemented.

Individuals can do a lot to cut down on computer waste, according to co-editor Eric Williams.

Broken sleep

"Every computer user has a role to play," he said.

"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 added.

And although modern computers use relatively little electricity while they are being operated, a huge amount of energy is wasted because equipment is left on permanently, often overnight.

Even energy-saving devices which automatically switch devices into standby mode can be deceptive, says the study, as they are frequently "woken up" by traffic from servers if they are connected to a network.

How should electronic waste be disposed of? Should companies be responsible for recycling?

Read selection of your comments.

Keep a close eye out for the introduction of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive which is to be implemented soon. This WEEE Directive takes on board most of these comments made and will encourage and producers, traders and consumers to safely treat the waste produced by such an item.
T. McCann, Motherwell, Lanarkshire

The problem of upgrading PCs is the lack of knowledge. Most people do not know how to upgrade their computers and many shops overcharge when making upgrades. I suggest better education from manufacturers on upgrading PCs or possibly a government funded scheme. I agree that boxed software is expensive, but disagree that buying a new PC is cheaper than upgrading. I personally have upgraded my PC several times and each time have weighed the hardware upgrade costs against the price of a new PC. Each time the upgrade cost is lower than the price of PC, especially if you take into account that you often don't need to upgrade basic parts, such as keyboard, mouse, speakers or monitor.
Zafe, Fulham, UK

Why the emphasis on computers? What about TVs and Hi Fi and games consoles? I smell a rat. The environmental lobby likes to single out the cause celebre so that non-business related hardware doesn't seem affected. I'm not blind to environmental concerns, just wary of pressure groups, including UN ones.
B Fitch, London UK

It has become part of human nature in the West not to question where a product has come from or where it goes whether it is a computer, a pair of trainers, Hi-Fi or just coffee. All we care about is how cheaply and conveniently we can purchase, and dispose of when it becomes redundant or is replaced by the next bigger, better, faster version. If we want to change thing's and become more sustainable we need to take a close look at society and what we value, as it is all one and the same, the more we consume, the less we care where it came from or who had to suffer to bring us it.
Simon Rerrie, Birmingham, UK

One of biggest problems with computers is that the software is not designed with the computer in mind. If the software is constantly designed with the fastest system available, either a new computer is required, or an expensive upgrade.
Brad, Southampton

I work for a 'not for profit' computer recycling company in Doncaster, the unwanted IT equipment that is donated is used to train both adults and children how to build and use computers safely. Many companies now have a recycling policy which enables us to continue this project.
Louise Hammal, Doncaster, South Yorkshire

Sending old computer to third world countries may not be efficient. I know of a scheme that brought in computers from America. The monitors were all 110V and out country uses 240 V. Most of the computers were also not adaptable to the environment in which we work. Our people being third world regard anything that is second hand as useless and always want the latest equipment. Most of that batch of computers was simply dumped. A most unsatisfactory result.
Allen, East London South Africa

Why do we in the UK always wait until the problems hits us in the face before we do anything
Andrew Gransden, Buckie, Scotland
What about the scarce precious metals like gold, silver and platinum that also goes into many electronic goods? A decade ago, the Germans adopted serious recycling targets where the producer pays for full recycling of goods (eg. cars and electronic). Why do we in the UK always wait until the problems hits us in the face before we do anything (eg. fridges)?
Andrew Gransden, Buckie, Scotland

If a percentage of funds paid for all new mainstream (i.e., all current manufacturers) computer sales was made available to innovative start ups with a business plan to develop radically new "green" computers we would see them burst onto the scene. Modern PCs deliver unusable speed and waste power. Who needs multi-gigahertz processors to surf the web, do email and word processing? Unfortunately, the PC industry has hooked the consumer on a wasteful yearning, not for speed, but acceleration.

Let's tax this industry's wastefulness - 10% on each sale to go to the "Lean Green Computing Machine" fund. Entrepreneurs will come out of the woodwork and I'll bet they'll deliver!
Dr. Robert Morley, Saint Louis, USA

It is true that businesses scrap PCs instead of re-using them. This is a hangover from the time when PCs had a short life-span before they broke down and/or became obsolete because of technological advancement. I'm sure a market will develop now that PCs are more reliable and the pace of development slows down.
Ian, Cambridge, UK

Manufacturers get cheap deals on software for their PC's (called OEM software) and it doesn't make sense to build at home with boxed software. This artificial difference is adding to the environmental problems by subsidising wasteful practices and our throw-away IT culture.
Frank Wayman, Glasgow, Scotland

It would be a great idea that our local councils could set up a safe way of disposing away non-functioning computer equipment. The equipment that still works that you wish to throw away could then be donated to good causes.
Paul Mc Dougal, London

The issue does not just relate to the disposal of old PCs. Some of the hazardous chemicals listed, in particular polybrominated flame retardants such as PBDE or HBCD 'leach' out of the PC casings during their operational life providing a constant stream of toxic, endocrine disrupting chemicals into the atmosphere of our offices and homes. We need detailed research into viable future alternatives as well as safer methods of disposal.
Kyle, York, UK

Any working computers which can run the internet should be re-used in education, perhaps sent to third world countries. The internet is a great resource for accurate information of all kinds, and best of all it's free.
Dylan Gedge, Glasgow, Scotland

The trouble is, that at the moment it's cheaper to go buy a completely new system than it is to upgrade. I have upgraded my existing PC twice now and each time I could have bought a New PC much cheaper. I tend to want to upgrade my Processor, that invariably means a new motherboard and new memory. It would help if Manufacturers at least made memory backward compatible. I'm happy with the amount of memory I have, but always have to buy new.
Bill, UK

Often it is cheaper just to buy a new PC
James Wright, London, UK
It does not help that it is nearly impossible to buy a new PC without a new monitor, keyboard and mouse as well. Upgrade products like processors and motherboards are also prohibitively expensive - often it is cheaper just to buy a new PC. Entry level PCs are far from 'future proofed' as well - new PCs should be built with future upgrades in mind.
James Wright, London, UK

It's not easy for an amateur to upgrade a pc effectively. Systems are designed 'of a piece'. And putting in a new faster processor, for example, would not necessarily produce the expected speed gain because other old components in the box would slow it down. PC makers should be obliged to take back and recycle old systems.
Dave, France

Currently IT products are disposable. Eventually there will be legislation that will make us pay the true price for such products, a price that includes environmental care. When that happens companies will have to start making things that can be maintained and upgraded easily.
Lon Barfield, UK

Everything we see and use in everyday life has come from planet Earth. We are just re-arranging these substances in a way we can make best use of them. The Environment doesn't suffer because it started out with all of these things in the first place. We should think of it as our living conditions that will suffer.
George, Oxford

The BBC's Jules Botfield
"There are more and more recycling facilities opening up around the country"

How to make computers greener
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04 Jun 03  |  Technology


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