London, UK A book released today on the environmental impact and management of computers combines in-house research at United Nations University and contributions from experts around the world. It presents a set of analyses ranging from environmental assessment of computer manufacturing, technologies for recycling, consumer behaviour, strategies of computer firms, and government policies.
“Computers and the Environment: Understanding and Managing their Impacts” by Ruediger Kuehr & Eric Williams and published by the United Nations University and Kluwer Publications covers the research results that show that manufacturing computers is materials intensive; total fossil fuels used to make one desktop system weigh over 240kilograms, some 10 times the weight of the machine itself. In comparison, production of an automobile or refrigerator, takes fossil fuels one to two times their weights.
Including manufacturing and operation, the total energy used per year of owning a computer is roughly the same as the much larger refrigerator. Also, substantial quantities of chemicals, many toxic (22 kg), and water (1,500 kg) are also used in manufacturing
Research results also show that reselling or upgrading computers saves 5-20 times more energy over the computer's life cycle as compared to recycling. Extending usable life of computers is effective for reducing all types of environmental burdens. However, relatively few older PCs are being resold, refurbished or recycled – most are stored and eventually end up in landfills.
The authors claim that environmental benefits and economic costs of recycling computers under the recently passed European Union Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) legislation depend very much on how the system is implemented. Recycling managed by a monopolist concern, whose main interest is meeting simple recycling targets for a fixed fee, could result in an expensive system with relatively small environmental benefit. A multilateral concern aimed at maximizing profit and reuse across the life cycle presents a more promising picture according to Kuehr & Williams.
The world's billionth personal computer was produced in 2002 and the number continues to grow rapidly as new operating systems and improvements in performance mean we often buy a new computer every 2 to 3 years.
This book follows up on previous UNU work producing a research article published in December 2002 in Environmental Science & Technology, which showed that 1.7kilograms of fossil fuels and chemicals are needed to manufacture and use a 2gram memory chip.