An activist's guide to minimizing the social and environmental
impact of computers and reforming the industry
Living in a World of Planned Obsolescence and Over-Consumption
Environmental and Social Impact of Computers
The Hazardous Disposal and Recycling of Computers
Minimizing the Harm of your Computer
Buying Products Certified with an Eco-Label
Software to Save your old Computer and the Environment
Free Formats to Liberate Information
Recent Movements to Reform the Computer Hardware Industry
The Importance of Government in Mandating Change
Why Extended Producer Responsibility is Needed
Now is the Time to Get Involved
Appendix A: Growth in Personal Computers
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I would appreciate any comments that you have about this Activist Guide, so that I can improve it and know what sections people disagree with.
I especially need feedback about the sections where I discuss how to buy and upgrade your laptop ethically. If you know of any companies which produce parts more environmentally and respect workers rights, please let me know. I haven't ever tried to upgrade a laptop (although I have torn a couple apart), so please let me know how that section could be improved as well.
Here are a few sections in the Guide which I think people on this forum might find interesting:
Living in a World of Planned Obsolescence and Over-Consumption
If we lived in a world more driven by true needs rather than the dictates of capitalistic over-consumption, we would admit that most of the processing power in today’s PC is utterly excessive for the vast majority of users. The 80386 of last decade was perfectly capable of the word processing, spread sheet calculations, internet surfing, and email reading which forms the bulk of our computing needs. The problem is that technology companies only make a profit when they can convince an already saturated market to upgrade to their newest gee-whiz gizmos. The only area of the market where growth is truly necessary is in the low-end commodity sector for low-income consumers. Bringing computing technology to the poor is a truly worthy goal, but it brings only marginal profits and most US technology companies focus their efforts on developing products with a surfeit of power and frill to tickle our consumptive desires. If the market only responded to unmet needs, MIT Media Lab’s $100 laptop for the rest of the world have been designed a long time ago. Over-consumption and market pressures lead us to continually upgrade to increasingly profligate technologies. Most consumption of new computers in America is the replacement of a perfectly functioning old computer which then becomes toxic waste relegated to the dump.
Unfortunately, the modern tech economy is based on the premise that hardware should be made obsolescent every couple years. Using modern computing technology becomes an cycle of wasteful upgrades every 2 or 3 years. Tech companies driven by overblown stock values and the need for continual growth are finding it increasingly difficult to sell to an already saturated market. To induce us to continually consume anew, they are forced to produce more and more powerful computers that will throw last year’s upgrade into sudden obsolescence. As Intel’s Andrew Grove candidly admitted, “We eat our own children, and we do it faster and faster ... That’s how we keep our lead.”1 The needless quest to antiquate last year's processor drives chip makers to plan dual and quadruple core processors now that they have reached the practical limits of forcing more clock cycles per second through a tiny sliver of silicon. Meanwhile, harddrive makers draw up plans for terabyte drives, since the billions of bytes of storage in todays drives aren't enough space to hold all the data that will be coursing through these multiple processor cores. ATI and nVidia in turn churn out power gobbling behemoths to transform all that data into 3-D fantasylands on our screens that will induce us to open our wallets. As if one GPU isn't enough, now they are devising schemes to sell us two and even four graphics cards to process in parallel the billions of pixels per second required to create the latest first-person shooter mayhem. The folly of trying to endlessly "eat our own children" with more and more powerful chips becomes apparent as we survey the roundup of 700 watt power supplies which are being devised to make all this excessive processing possible. When the relentless quest for more power doesn't induce enough consumption, the industry turns computers into statements of style with incompatible case designs and colors. They dream up a plethora of embedded gadgetry and techno chic fashion like iPods so there is always something novel on the market to tickle our consuming desires.
Meanwhile, the software companies realize that they will only be able to endlessly sell us more software, if they produce buggy bloatware which forces us into upgrade cycles. If we aren’t coerced to buy the upgrade to fix the bugs in the last version, we will be forced to buy the latest software because we can’t interchange data with our peers who are using the latest formats which last year’s software can’t read. Computers have revolutionized the production and dissemination of information, but we can only access that information if we continually upgrade to the latest technology capable of reading it. Each upgrade of the latest bloatware consumes so much more memory and processor time that we are forced to upgrade our hardware at the same time. Once a number of our peers upgrades, we can not risk being left incommunicado and must upgrade just to keep up with the frenetic herd. Each new computer packs millions more transistors, sucks more current, and requires more cooling fans just to function, yet we rarely pause to question the insanity of riding this technological whirlwind.
Each upgrade is regarded as an advancement to be hailed as progress in our society, but we must ask ourselves what have we really done except consume more resources to do the same job as before. MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte observes: “Today's laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways.” Undoubtedly, it is a technological wonder that today’s desktop computer can pump 2.5 Gb/s of visual eye-candy down a single PCI Express line so we can edit movies at home and play the latest first person shooter from Id Software. Titillated by the latest novelty, we often forget to ask ourselves what is the purpose of our technology.
Although computers form only a part of our consumptive habits, they form a vital element and are emblematic of the information age we are entering. If we reform the ways in which computers are created, bought, used, and disposed, the effects will redound into larger spheres, since computers are the linchpin in the manipulation and transference of information which will constitute the basis of future economies and societies. As we hope for a better future for our world, we must ask ourselves how we can make our consumption of computers be “shared, strengthening, socially responsible and sustainable” as the UN report advocates. These are not easy propositions and the solutions are often debatable. Nonetheless, this activist guide hopes to educate you about the major issues, motivate you to action, and link you into collective efforts for reform.
Minimizing the Harm of Your Computer
Today, many people are buying laptops as secondary computers—an option which you should avoid if you can get by with only one computer. If you need both a laptop and a desktop, consider just buying a 17” laptop which can serve as both a desktop replacement, and a laptop. If you require more screen space at home, consider a laptop with a docking station and an external monitor to use at home. In general, laptops consume less resources and energy to manufacture. They require less plastic and metal and have fewer printed circuit boards. Although it requires the same amount of energy to produce the processors inside, laptops tend to have integrated chipsets, so there are fewer total chips and printed circuit boards than in a desktop. Moreover, laptops require less energy and are highly efficient.
These positive factors, however, are balanced by the fact that laptops usually don't last as long and most of the parts in a laptop can't be upgraded or even fixed for a reasonable cost. Laptops generally only last from 2 to 4 years compared to the 3 to 5 year life span of most desktop computers. The industry has prioritized lightness over durability and designs throw-away laptops which resist easy upgrade and repair. Many of the laptops in use today will be junked when Microsoft's Vista finally arrives because they have not empty memory slots and their 32 bit processor and integrated graphics processor can't be upgraded. In short, they will be perfectly functional computers which are outmoded by wasteful bloatware which demands a 64 bit processor, 1 gig of memory, and 3D graphics to adequately run.33
Laptops aren't junked at a higher rate than desktop computers only because they can't be upgraded, they also have a higher failure rate. PC World's Jan 2006 reliability survey ranked Mac laptops among the most reliable, yet a MacInTouch survey of 10,000 Mac owners found that 21% of all Mac laptops had to be repaired in the first year. According to another industry study, 18% of laptops are physically damaged and returned for repair in their first year of life. The cause of 90% of these failed laptops in the first year are drops and liquid spills,34 yet rugged notebooks could easily be designed to withstand these extra stresses at little extra cost and weight. Twinhead has shown with their new Durabook line what can be done if the priority is placed on durability and energy efficiency, rather than lightness or power. The Durabook N14RA only weights 0.5 to 0.7 lb more and retails for $150 to $250 more than an a normal laptop, yet it features a magnesium alloy case that is 20 times stronger than usual ABS plastic, a spill-proof keyboard, a locking optical drive, and an anti-shock mounted LCD and harddrive. If the whole industry designed their laptops to be drop and spill proof in this way, the mass market would drive down the costs so much that the difference in price between these these more durable parts and today's conventional parts would be vanishingly small. Customers are partly at fault for not demanding more rugged laptops, yet until Twinhead debuted the Durabook line, they were never offered a viable alternative that didn't cost double the price of a normal laptop.
Laptops are readily added to the mounting piles of e-waste, because fixing them often costs more than simply buying a new model. If a laptop breaks after the 1 year warranty expires, most customers make the economically rational choice to junk it and buy a new one. Computer companies explicitly discourage people from even trying to fix their own laptops when it breaks, so laptops will only be serviced through the brand company. For the intrepid few that dare to void their warranty and try to fix their laptop themselves, they are met with a host of unnecessary obstructions. Laptop chassis could be designed to facilitate ready disassembly with an ordinary Phillips screw driver, yet most are also held together by a tangle of plastic pressure tabs which readily break and are extremely difficult to pry apart. Laptop owners, who ignore the warning labels in the owner's manual about opening up their laptop, often find that replacement parts are too expensive to justify repair. Quanta and Compal together manufactured 28 million laptops in 2005--almost half of the 60 million produced in the world--yet not a single one of their design specs are publicly available on the internet, so people can't find the original part numbers for components. Instead, people are forced to order expensive replacement parts through the brand companies such as Dell or HP-Compaq who have renumbered all the parts to preclude people from ordering cheaper parts directly from the manufacturer.
Given the recent consolidation in the laptop manufacturing market among a few Taiwanese companies, the big players could easily agree among themselves to use standardized parts to facilitate easy repair as has happened with the ATX form factor for desktops. For instance, there could be 3 standardized form factors for parts on 12", 15", and 17" laptops, so a keyboard taken off one 15" laptop would fit into another 15". Of course there would always be specialized notebooks that don't comply with the standard form factor just as there are nonstandard desktop computers. Nonetheless, people who know that they might want to upgrade or fix their laptops in the future would buy the standardized units just as they buy ATX desktop computers today. In the past when laptops were considered overpriced specialty computers, standardization was hardly necessary, but today the global market for laptops is expected to grow 17.8% annually and many predict that laptops will soon replace desktops as the standard computer. Given the tremendous environmental costs of creating and junking all these laptops with short life cycles, we must demand that our laptops be durable, fixable, and upgradeable, rather than planned obsolescence black boxes which inner contents are a mystery to the owner.
Since most laptops will rapidly become toxic waste in the municipal dump, avoid buying laptops which don't run on either an Intel Pentium M or an AMD Turion MT (unless you are buying an Apple Powerbook). The other chips either consume too much power, or have so little processing power that they lend themselves to rapid junking. Unfortunately, the Windows programs of the future will probably require a better graphics processor than the standard integrated GPU from Intel which comes with most Pentium M (Centrino) laptops. Pentium M laptops with Intel Extreme Graphics 2 or Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900/950 are incredibly energy efficient, but I only recommend buying one if a long battery life is your first priority and you don't plan on upgrading to more graphics-intensive software in a couple years. If you are trying to economize, I recommend looking for a laptop with a 64 bit Turion MT with at least 512 MB of RAM and an ATI Radeon Xpress 200M GPU or better.
Recent Movements to Reform the Computer Hardware Industry
A number of European countries are raising concerns about other hazardous substances such as PVC and phthalates, not currently covered by the RoHS, leading many to predict that further restrictions will be forthcoming. With Europe demanding safer products, computer companies may chose to replace PVC and plastics containing brominated flame retardants in their European product lines, while continuing to sell the more hazardous products to the US. PVC which is used in 26% of the plastic in computers could easily be replaced by ABS plastics or metal, but products won't be re-engineered to eliminate PVC unless Americans demand it. Similarly, monitor makers will probably continue to use Cold Cathode Florescent Lamp backlights for flat panel displays for the US market, while switching to the mercury-free LED backlights for the European market. For a laptop screen, a LED backlight will cost $3 more, but it won't require bulky inverter circuitry and will consume less power, produce less heat, and last longer than a traditional CCFL backlight which contains mercury. Because LED backlights are thinner and suck less wattage, the most expensive laptops in the US will probably feature these backlights beginning in 2006,60 but the bulk of the US displays probably won't switch unless we make a ruckus.
When the WEEE directive was passed in the European Parliament in 2002, the Calvert Group and As You Sow, socially-responsible mutual funds, asked why the same companies that will be recycling their products in Europe, shouldn't do the same in the US. In 2002, the Calvert Group introduced resolutions at Apple, IBM, Gateway, HP, Compaq, and Dell stockholder meetings to assess the feasibility of creating a product-take-back and recycling program for each company. Despite the fact that US computer makers are implementing product-take-back programs abroad, they all refused to be responsible for their own e-waste inside the US. Only 7.5% of Gateway stockholders and 8.3% of HP stockholders voted to study the feasibility of such a program; the other companies refused to even vote on the measure.61 Similarly, when the California legislature was debating the Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003, all the computer makers (except Apple) and their trade industry representatives came out in opposition to the act.
Alarmed by the growing e-waste problem, a coalition of activist, community, and labor groups launched the Computer Take Back Campaign in Spring 2001 to demand that computer manufacturers must be responsible for recycling their own products. The campaign promotes the idea of Extended Producer Responsibility, a policy developed by Sweden in the 80s to hold manufacturers accountable for the entire lifecycle of a product--including its disposal and recycling. EPR has been widely adopted in the EU's WEEE directive and in recent recycling laws in several Asian countries. Currently, 15 countries have passed EPR legislation requiring the take-back of batteries and 12 countries require the take-back of various forms of electronics.62 Despite the initial opposition on the part of computer makers in the US, there are signs that the Computer TakeBack Campaign is beginning to change opinions in the industry. The industry has begun to wake up to the fact that their toxic products are a potential public relations disaster and liability. Now that the WEEE and RoHS are a reality, practical computer makers are starting to realize that opposition will only generate more bad PR, while promoting eco-friendly products and recycling services will make them more competitive in the new green economy.