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How green is your Apple?

In December 2006 I wrote a feature for MacUser UK on the environmental
impact of computers, and in particular Macs. MacUser doesn’t put its
features online, so I’ve decided to put this one up. This is the full,
unedited version, so any mistakes are mine rather than MacUser’s.Some of the rights for this article belong to Dennis Publishing: please do not republish this article anywhere else.

Everything that we do has some kind of impact on the environment,
from breathing through to burning millions of tonnes of crude oil.
However, one of the cultural trends of humankind during the 21st
Century is a striving to reduce this impact, and preserve our natural
environment as much as possible.

Although the detrimental effects of large scale industry like cars
has been known and closely followed for decades, a more recent centre
of attention has been that icon of the last twenty years, the personal
computer. Computer makes have come under attach from environmental
campaigners for their manufacturing processes, while computer users
have started to wonder whether using a computer – particularly one
that’s on 24 hours a day, seven days a week – is worth the undoubted
effects on the environment.

Apple in particular has been the subject of some dedicated
campaigning, in particular from Greenpeace. Over the past year, the
veteran environmental group has attacked Apple, claiming it uses
hazardous substances in Macs – substances that other manufacturers have

But what’s the truth about the impact that our addiction to
computers has on the environment? Is computing sustainable, or will
there one day be a crunch, when we’re forced to either slow down our
pace of technological change or just abandon computers completely? And
where does the responsibility lie: with manufacturers who churn out
ever-faster machines that must be replaced every three years, or with
consumers greedy for the latest and greatest PC? And, should the
environmentally-conscious consumer be choosing something other than
Apple if they’re looking for the greenest PC?

The problem

Think of environmental problems from technology, and you probably
think of how its used. We’re used the the idea that some cars, for
example, are “greener” than others because of the amount of fuel they
use and the emissions they release.

In the same way, computer users might think of the environmental
impact of computers in the same way. Although computers don’t need to
be taken to the petrol station and filled with millions of years old
hydrocarbons, they do consume power – some more than others.

For most home and small office computer users, power consumption is
a relatively trivial issue. The 25W that a Mac mini consumes, for
example, makes it significantly less energy-hungry than an average 30in
LCD TV (around 45W) and a lot less than the largest plasma screen
(which measure in the hundreds of Watts). Plus, virtually all modern
computers come with power saving modes, which use tricks like lowering
the CPU cycle speed and flipping monitors into standby modes to reduce
power consumption even further.

But, as with cars, considering only the power consumption is
actually a very limited way of thinking of the environmental impact of
products. Power, after all, can be generated in sustainable ways,
whether that’s through using an energy producer that supplies “green”
energy or through a solar panel on your roof.
In fact, much of the
environmental impact of a computer comes when it’s not in your hands,
before it’s even in that lovely box you bought it in, and after you
replace it with another model.  As we’ll see, the biggest and least
easily-solved environmental issues with computers are connected to
their manufacture, and disposal.

Let’s look at the beginning of the life of your computer – its
manufacture. According to Eric Williams, assistant professor in the
school of sustainability at Arizona State University and co-author of
“Computers and the environment”, the total energy used in producing a
desktop computer and 17in monitor is 6400 megajoules – which,
considering an average lifespan of four years, means that 81% of the
entire power consumed by a PC over its life is taken up in making it in
the first place.

Once you take this massive amount of power consumed in production
into account, it turns the PC from one of the most
environmentally-friendly electronic devices in the home to one of the
most power-hungry – Williams estimates that, including the power cost
of manufacture, a computer eats up 1.3 times as much energy as a fridge
per year, averaged out over the life span of the product.

Power, of course, is only one part of the equation. Every product
also takes resources to create, above and beyond those that end up in
the product itself. For example, Williams estimates that a single 32MB
DRAM chip – which weighs a mere 2g – requires 1.6Kg of fossil fuels,
72g of associated chemicals, and a whopping 32Kg of water to create.
Pile all the resources used in the creation of even a Mac mini next to
it and you’d need rather a large room to keep your computer in.

And these figures are themselves only estimates based on good
quality engineering. According to Zeina Al-Hajj, toxics campaigner for
Greenpeace, the figures may be higher. “the problem with the
electronics industry that access to information and data is not that
easy. There are no figures in relation to how much chemicals are used
or even how much e-waste is generated [in manufacture]”.

If a computers manufacture is where much of the power and resources
of its lifespan are used up, then the end of its useful life is where
the greatest potential pollution menace lies. Each computer includes a
huge range of metals, plastics and other materials, some of which are
potentially toxic and many of which require specialist handling if they
are to be recycled.  While much of a computer is composed of recyclable
materials like aluminium, iron and plastics, there are many more
obscure chemicals inside your PC, like germanium, tantalum, mercury and
arsenic in trace amounts.

Worse still, the scale of the problem is very hard to judge.
According to Zeina Al-Hajj, “a study made by the UN Environmental
Program revealing that 20-50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated
globally every year. This is a very rough estimation and it does
represent the gap of data. Other studies from various countries reveal
that e-waste forms about 5% of the municipal waste and is one of the
fastest growing waste streams.”

H Scott Matthews, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental
Engineering at Carnegie-Mellon University, agrees that there is little
data on how many computers simply end their lives in municipal waste
dumps, and how many are properly dealt with.  “No-one can really say
how many computers are recycled, sitting in houses, or landfills. The
only data that exists is sales data of new units, the numbers currently
in households, etc..  The computer/recycling industry tracks volumes of
waste processed (eg pounds) and not really ‘units’. And besides there
is much cannibalization of subcomponents (eg swapping out working
drives or memory) that makes tracking units impossible. So any numbers,
including ours, on the problem are at best guesses and speculation.”

Where Matthews and Greenpeace disagree is on the potential
environmental problems caused by the “unsafe” disposal of old PCs.
According to Matthews, “there are toxic substances in computers,
especially older units, and even in newer units, but if these metals or
substances escaped both the manufacturing bonds of the machines and the
confines of the landfill, and got into say drinking water, would
anything bad happen? I have seen studies on people breaking up CRTs and
then doing tests on the residues in water and finding only slightly
risky results. And that was in a controlled environment where the
substances were directly able to get into water. While from a waste
management perspective I care a lot about filling landfills with
computers, from a risk perspective I lose no sleep at all. Of course,
risk is really the important issue.”

A bigger question over safe disposal comes from the Western habit of
shipping waste overseas, and in particular to developing countries, for
recycling. Although some developing world facilities follow Western
standards of waste disposal, not all do – and once computer waste is
overseas, tracking what happens to it becomes more difficult.

What is certain is that some developing world waste disposal
facilities fall into the category of what’s often called “backyard
recycling”. Here, parts of waste that can be usefully recycled, like
the metals, are stripped off and the rest of the waste is either
abandoned or burned – both of which can be environmentally hazardous.

What’s being done

Even if there are doubts over the scale of the problem of waste
disposal, governments and international organisations are already
taking the problem more seriously. According to Lone Mikkelson,
spokesman for Stavros Dimas, European Commission for the environment,
Europe is taking action on electronic waste. In June 2006, the
Restriction on the Use of Certain Hazourdous Substances directive
(known as RoHS) came into force in the UK, while in 2002, the
Commission passed a directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic
Equipment (known as WEEE) that places a responsibility on producers to
take back and safely dispose of old products.

Although RoHS is already in place, WEEE was not implemented into UK
law until January 2007, despite the deadline for incorporation long
having passed. Computer makers will then have a legal duty to ensure
that old products are collected and disposed of properly, including
recycling many components.

In a statement on the implementation of WEEE, Malcolm Wicks,
minister for science and innovation at the Department of Trade and
Industry, claimed that WEEE would make a significant difference. “By
providing a way of ensuring that electronic waste no longer has to go
to landfills, manufacturers and importers will have the responsibility
to ensure that they plan for both their new and existing products to be
recycled rather than dumped,” he said.

However, don’t expect to be able to simply call Apple or Dell and
get them to collect your old computer. According to Paul Rice, a
partner at legal firm Pinsent Masons specialising in environmental law,
“it will be similar to the laws about packaging waste. Companies joined
schemes which negotiated with local authorities and waste management
companies to collect and recycle material on behalf of members.”
the world’s largest PC market – the US – there is no equivalent to WEEE
on a nationwide scale, although some States are attempting to implement
similar schemes. However, this is one instance where globalization has
a positive benefit. As H Scott Matthews puts it, “companies like Dell
or Apple don’t want to sell different machines in different parts of
the world – so the WEEE directive and others like it make a ‘least
common denominator’ kind of scheme where of course it makes sense to
think about the highest environmental standards worldwide, and making
products that meet these tougher standards worldwide, instead of making
a ‘good’ product in Europe, and a ‘bad’ product for everyone else.”

While states and inter-governmental organisations are taking action
at the end of the computer’s life, what of the beginnings? Obviously,
it is in the interests of computer makers to use less resources when
making PCs, as this would allow them to reduce their own costs and
increase product margins. But, in chip manufacture in particular, there
is currently little prospect of significantly reducing resource and
power usage.

The reason for this is down to the physics of processor manufacture.
Because silicon dioxide – one of the main substances used in chips –
forms very slowly at room temperature, the wafers that chips are
printed on need to be heated to around 1000 degrees C, which consumes
an immense amount of power and water (needed for cooling).  Although
there has recently been some progress in research on producing silicon
dioxide at lower temperatures – most notably at the University of
Cambridge – it will take years for these processes to make the leap
from academic study to manufacture.

Corporate and consumer responsibility

If manufacturing is likely to remain power and resource intensive
for some time to come, what other things can companies do to minimise
the environmental impact of computers – and what can you do to
pressurize computer makers into “doing the right thing”?

According to Greenpeace’s Zeina Al-Haj, “manufacturers can do a lot
to reduce the  environmental impact of the electronics industry by
designing products that contain less and less chemicals, products that
last longer and therefore do not become waste every 18 month or so and
that are easily upgradeable (in case there is a development in software
which is the case with PCs) and products that can easily be reused and

H Scott Matthews underlined the point that the length of life of the
PC is very important: “Product lifetimes matter. If computers lasted
even 50% longer than they currently do, the amount of obsolete
computers would of course go down by 50%.” However, he cast doubt on
whether the economics of the market could encourage manufacturers to go
down this route.  “Unfortunately, there are incentives by the OS and
CPU makers to get us to upgrade all the time.  The product lifetime
versus profit trade-off makes extending lifetimes a losing decision if
you are in the business of making computers. I cant blame Apple for
wanting to make money.”

There appears to be no easy way around the simple equation that
short product life cycles will always increase the profits of computer
companies. After all, selling you a completely new machine ever two
years will always be a better profit-making method than selling you one
every five years. This means that the onus falls more on the consumer
to make the right choice, both in terms of how often they buy a new
computer, which computer to buy, and how they get rid of it in the end.
As Al-Haj puts it, “for consumers, the golden rule is to use their
products till the end of their lives an not simply until a new,  hip,
cool design is in the market. People should re-use products among
themselves wherever possible.”

Matthews cited a personal experience of how computer makers are
effectively discouraged from producing long-lifetime products. “back in
one a study on landfill volumes in 1997, we called out Apple as a
progressive company because at the time we had the Power Mac 7500/8500
series that had processor daughtercards, making upgrades easy and
affordable. It was a platform on which people could feasibly just keep
upgrading equipment, extending the life, without needing to buy a new
one. I upgraded mine several times, and lasted for 5 years. Apple
didn’t make a dime off of me after the first one I bought, so they lost
the profits of selling me two other computers in that time.”

According to Greenpeace, consumer pressure can be the most effective
weapon in pushing manufacturers towards making greener PCs, by, for
example, buying PCs that can be upgraded. Machines that are too old to
be useful to one user should be reused by other users who have less
power-hungry needs. Plus, of course, consumers can vote with their
wallets and purchase PCs from manufacturers which encourage good
environmental practices.

Apple and other companies

Does Apple measure up well in this area? Certainly if you consider
recent publicity, you’d think that it doesn’t. This year Greenpeace
started a campaign highlighting what it claimed was Apple’s poor
environmental record, even going as far as to have space at the 2006
Mac Expo – and, the organisation claims, being booted out for taking
their protests too far. The campaign largely focusses on what it claims
is the continued use of toxic chemicals in its products.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn’t an assessment that Apple agrees
with. Alan Hely, European corporate communications director for the
company, put its case: “We disagree with Greenpeace’s rating and the
criteria they chose. Apple has a strong environmental track record and
has led the industry in restricting and banning toxic substances such
as mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium, as well as many BFRs
(brominated flame retardants). We have also completely eliminated CRT
monitors,which contain lead,from our product line. Apple desktops,
notebooks and displays each score best-in-class in the new EPA ranking
system EPEAT, which uses international standards set by IEEE.”

Eric Williams thinks that Apple may have a point. ““The NGOs [like
Greenpeace] have an entirely take on this, because they view the
environmental impacts of computer through a very different lens. To
them, the toxic content of electronics is paramount. Lead, for example,
is an ‘evil’ substance in their eyes, so any company that works harder
to recycle or take lead out gets better marks. However, this is not
nearly as important as it might seem at first sight, because a great
deal of the toxics generated in backyard recycling are generated in the
recycling process (e.g. dioxins), and are not in the product itself.
Designing a computer that is safe to pile up and burn in your backyard,
an engineer would tell you, is a bit of a challenge. So even if you
removed 100% of lead and all other toxics from computers, backyard
recycling impacts would still be huge.”

But Matthews thinks that at least part of the reason that Apple has
been highlighted may be changes within Apple itself.  “Apple gets a
really bad rap on environmental issues. You know what? It deserves it.
Years ago Apple had a model environmental team for both assisting
internal designers, tracking environmental initiatives around the
world,  and so on – it was a leader. Dell had basically no presence
there at all until a few years ago. Now Dell is really in the
leadership role Apple used to occupy.”

However, Williams points out that,despite this ceding of the
technical leadership role, Apple is perhaps getting more than its fair
share of criticism. “From my perspective, none of the computer
manufacturers are doing much to address the environmental impacts of
the life cycle of their product, so I can’t really point at Apple as a
‘bad boy’. The reason is that most green activities they’re doing
aren’t really targeting the important issues. Other than the
question-mark of the brominated flame retardants, it seems to me the
most relevant impacts of IT equipment are use of chemicals and energy
in manufacturing, energy use during operation and impacts of backyard
recycling in developing countries.”

According to Williams, almost no manufacturers are doing anything to
extend the lifespan of their products, which, he claims “is probably
less about technical specs for the machine and more about making it
easier for the user to resell and reuse if they want.” On energy use,
there is little to differentiate the different machine makers:
“everybody does Energy Star [the US standard for energy efficiency]
but, other than for laptops, not much more.”

What’s clear about the environmental impact of computers is that
there are no quick fixes, and no easy answers. Consumers can place
pressure on manufactures to cut potentially toxic chemicals from new
machines, but this does not deal with the hundreds of millions of
existing computers that are currently either gathering dust in attics
or lying rusting in landfills. New machines will continue to develop in
terms of their energy efficiency, but even buying the most
energy-efficient computer won’t reduce the vast amount of power that is
used in making it in the first place. And although European legislation
means that computers in Britain are likely to be safely disposed of,
those in the world’s biggest market – the US – will continue to be
dealt with in a piecemeal way.

However, there is one step that virtually everyone agrees will help:
breaking the fast upgrade cycle that many consumers embark on, buying a
new computer every couple of years in order to keep up with the latest
and greatest trend. So, next time you’re tempted by a new Mac because
it has a processor that’s twice as fast as your existing machine, think
twice about buying it.

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