A United Nations University study into the environmental impact of personal computers, due to be published later Monday, has found that around 1.8 tons of raw material are required to manufacture the average desktop PC and monitor and that extending a machine's operational life through re-use holds a much greater potential for energy saving than recycling.
According to the study, the manufacturing of one desktop computer and 17-inch CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor requires at least 240 kilograms of fossil fuels, 22 kilograms of chemicals and 1,500 kilograms of water. In terms of weight, the total amount of materials used is about equal to that of a mid-size car.
By far the best way to minimize impact on the environment from a personal computer is to extend its useful life, said Eric Williams, a researcher at the United Nations University (UNU) in Tokyo and one of the report's co-authors.
Users should think carefully about whether they really need a new computer, if upgrading their existing computer could serve the same purpose, he said. Actions such as delaying replacement and upgrading the memory or storage space or, if the machine is replaced, donating the old computer so that it may continue to be used offer potential energy savings of between five and 20 times those gained by recycling.
This is because so much of the energy required to manufacture a personal computer is used to make high-tech components like semiconductors and those components are destroyed in the recycling process to collect a small amount of raw materials. In an earlier study published in late 2002, Williams concluded that 1.7 kilograms of fossil fuels and chemicals and 32 kilograms of water are used to produce a single 2-gram 32M-byte DRAM (dynamic RAM) memory chip.
Seemingly endless advances in technology are encouraging people to replace their machines and falling prices are making replacement a more attractive option that upgrading and have users accustomed to a two-year to three-year upgrade cycle.
"It's a big problem," said Williams.
However, there are some encouraging signs. In the corporate market machines supplied under service contracts often have a good chance of being re-used thanks to programs offered by the equipment suppliers, such as Dell Inc.
The vendor has seen a tremendous increase in the number of machines it receives from customers for processing before either recycling or donation to agencies such as the National Cristina Foundation, said Tod Arbogast, senior manager of asset recovery services at Dell.
He said Dell has handled millions of machines since 1992 when it started offering its asset recovery service, which costs around $25 per machine and includes collection, transportation and reporting and, for personal computers, destruction of data on the hard-disk drive. The service is available in the U.S., Europe and select countries in Asia and Latin America. Around two fifths of Dell's commercial customers participate.
"We believe no computer should go to waste," he said. "The ultimate solution is to reuse the computer either as a donation, for parts or on the second-hand market."
The market in used computers for private users is growing as technologies like Internet auctions allow users to quickly advertise their old machine to several potential customers. The market for used computer equipment on eBay was around two billion dollars in 2001, said Williams.
When it comes to replacing equipment there is one piece of advice that Williams offers both private and corporate users: do something with your old machine quickly.
"The longer it sits in your closet (or desk), the less value it will be to you and whoever will be getting it."
The report also looks at energy use and says always-on networks are making the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Energy Star program less relevant.
"I think it needs to be renewed," said Williams. Too many computers at companies are prevented from entering their standby mode by LAN traffic, which keeps them awake and consuming power even while they are not in use, he said. While acknowledging that some machines are kept online to allow network maintenance to take place, Williams suggests redesigning network cards to allow the PC to go to sleep and then wake it should there be any important network traffic.
Nonresidential office and telecommunications equipment consumed around 3 percent of all electricity supplied in the U.S. in 2000, according to a January 2002 DOE study. Of that, around 40 percent was consumed by personal computers and associated monitors.
The report, "Computers and the Environment: Understanding and Managing their Impacts," is published by Kluwer Academic Publishers and the UNU and is available in paperback (ISBN: 1-4020-1680-8) or hard cover (ISBN: 1-4020-1679-4) editions and costs $35 and $83, respectively. The UNU's dedicated Web site related to IT and the environment is http://www.it-environment.org .