Greedy Computers

Greedy Computers

On the surface, computers seem like an environmentalist's dream: they replace reams of wasted paper with streams of bits and bytes. But the truth is that paper consumption has skyrocketed during the computer age. And computers pose many other environmental challenges that we've barely begun to deal with.


A call for computer conservation. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

What takes five hundred pounds of fossil fuels, fifty pounds of chemicals, and more than a ton and a half of water to produce? It's not an oil rig or a jumbo jet—it's a typical desktop computer.

That's just one of the findings of a new report by the United Nations University in Tokyo. It's goal was to study the ecological impact of the computer boom. Lead scientist Eric Williams says that making a personal computer consumes far more resources, pound for pound, than many larger machines.


For instance, for an automobile or a refrigerator, the amount of fossil fuels you need to make them are about one or two times their weights, as compared to ten times for a computer.

With more than a hundred million new computers manufactured every year, that's an incredible strain on the world's resources. Williams says consumer restraint could make a big difference.


When you're about to buy a new computer, ask first of all, do you really need it? Is it possible to upgrade the computer? Also, perhaps given your computing needs, a used computer might be suitable for your needs. And presuming that if neither of those work out, then a lot of manufacturers actually offer free recycling programs.

Tomorrow on Science Update, we'll look at the hazards of high-tech waste. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

Thought your computer was environmentally friendly? Think again. As you can tell from this report, computers have created a whole host of new environmental problems even as they apparently solve older ones.

One problem is the intensity of raw materials that it takes to create a computer. In a way, a computer is like a steak. You've got to raise about three pounds of cow for every pound of edible steak, and it takes hundreds of gallons of water and grain to raise each of those cows. In the same way, it takes a lot of chemicals, fossil fuels, and especially water to make a small desktop computer.

And although computers have been gradually getting smaller, Williams says that much of the heavy manufacturing goes into the high-tech components, like motherboards and microchips, rather than the bulk of the computer itself. So turning a twelve-pound laptop into a six-pound laptop doesn't really save you half of the raw materials.

Computers also pose a problem because they have artificially short life-spans. Most people use appliances like refrigerators and toasters until they don't work anymore. In contrast, people buy new computers constantly, even when their old computers are perfectly functional or at least upgradeable. And the faster computer companies can offer newer and better models, the more computers they sell.

This cycle of production and consumption shows no signs of slowing down. (In 1981 Bill Gates said "640 kilobytes [of hard drive memory] ought to be enough for anyone." Today's personal computers have easily 100,000 times that.) And fixing the problem isn't easy. Williams says that consumers can help a lot by controlling their spending behavior—for example, by upgrading instead of buying a new machine. If you must get rid of your machine, he suggests selling it as soon as possible on the used market, rather than letting it sit in a closet getting obsolete. Or donate it to a school or charity. Most computer manufacturers recycle their old computers (for information, search your computer company's website).

As for the corporations, convincing computer companies not to develop new models wouldn't exactly go over well in an executive boardroom. Williams suggests that companies should hold their parts suppliers to high environmental standards—in other words, to buy only from companies who produce their materials efficiently. But what if a slightly more wasteful company offers them a better price? And who decides exactly how environmentally responsible these companies should be? These are questions that will certainly become more pressing in the years to come.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What are some of the environmental challenges posed by computers?
  2. How are computers different from other appliances in their environmental impact?
  3. What actions can consumers take to offset these environmental problems?
  4. Do you think laws should be passed to address this problem? What kinds of laws? How would they be enforced?

For Educators

This study was part of the UN University's I.T. and Environment Initiative.

The article, Growing concerns over India's e-waste, from the BBC highlights the growing concern over computer waste dumping in developing countries.

E-Waste, by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, is a primer on the hazards of high-tech trash.

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