Can We Do the Same Stuff but Without the Toxic Waste?

I was reading an interesting article about "green chemistry" the other day. The designer of a new chemical who is a "green chemist" will consider the effects of its use in the world from the moment of its creation, throughout its entire lifecycle in the ecosystem. The development of green chemistry as a worldwide industry is being driven by financial needs from manufacturers, as they face expensive cleanup costs. But it's also driven by university research, and institutions are training the materials engineers and other scientists who can think and operate this new way.

At the same time I came across an article about the disposal problems consumers are facing as millions replace their old television sets with flat-panel displays. Most of us don't think about how to dispose of that metallic box full of toxic wastes that we call our laptop, and which contains our lives. When we do, it's easy to understand that we have a waste disposal problem with the laptop itself. But the problem is vastly greater than that.

Computers are wonderful things. They enliven my life and improve its quality so continuously that my interaction with them on a daily basis could not be described in understandable terms to the average US citizen of, say, 1955. They often do a very good job at what they're built to do. But it's the things that they do which are not intended that need a closer look by, hopefully, "green" designers. Designers who can design manufacturing, packaging, and shipping processes that use less material and energy, and far less toxic materials; designers who will pay attention to the possibly negative effects of humans using computers; and designers who will think through the entire lifecycle of a computer and plan for the reuse of its components in ways that are financially viable and which do not fill up dumps with toxic waste.

Materials Intensity of Manufacture/Lifecycle

People who study the "materials intensity" of various kinds of manufacturing processes perform minute measurements on the materials (metals, plastics, water) and the energy used to manufacture various things. Forget about "toxic" substances entirely for moment; would you have guessed that it takes nearly 600 pounds of fossil fuel and 6400 megajoules of energy to make a single Pentium III computer with monitor? That makes typical information technology equipment approximately 10 times as "dense," in terms of the relative amounts of material to make it, than an automobile.

A lot of that fuel and energy is used in the manufacturing of silicon chips. But there is also the fact that even to get a plastic keyboard, manufacturers have to get raw materials, turn them into the right kind of plastics (with dyes and other possibly toxic things), process them, mold them, and assemble them. Each step takes energy, materials (sometimes toxic ones), and generates its own waste at lifecycle points well before the end-of-life issues arise.

Toxicity During Use

Studies are popping up in the news media about this or that research which hints that, for one example, the more people watch a computer screen the likelier they are to have glaucoma. At the current stage of medical knowledge about such things, I join most of us in dismissing those as "real" problems--at least so far.

Here's a more real concern: A study recently found that 100 percent of every tested computer (we're talking the keyboards here, which we touch constantly) found the existence of brominated flame retardants. This category of chemical is a neurotoxin and it is also bioaccumulative, meaning that multiple low-level exposures add up over time and the chemical builds up in a living body. No one is sure how much exposure is safe. The good news is that manufacturers are taking a look now at ways to meet fire hazard standards without using such toxic chemicals.

There's no doubt a lot more of this kind of issue where this one came from. Time will tell.

End of Life

A computer monitor might contain up to 8 pounds of lead, which we all know is a toxin. Managing to get that lead out of the computer without it ending up in a landfill seems pretty urgent--and not an easy task. Environmental scientists generally call the kinds of issues involved in disposing of a computer "end-of-life" issues. And a lot more chemicals than just lead are involved.

Most people, when they think of keeping a computer out of the landfill, think of methods like recycling (by which they usually mean re-using)--where they donate or sell the equipment to others who can extend its useful life. And there are more and more attempts at finding effective ways to "mine" disposed computers to pull out and create quantities of the toxic substances so they can be used again in other manufacturing processes (think "green chemistry").

At least we, as consumers of IT products, can directly feel some responsibility for end-of-life toxin issues and can address them (or not) as we choose. A much larger issue, and not one that we as consumers of computers can have a direct impact on, is the issue of "materials and manufacturing" of IT equipment. It's far harder to make an impact on the manufacturing of a product and we can only hope that the costs of cleanup, at the end of a product's lifecycle, eventually ends up being put on the manufacturers and users, so there is real pressure to introduce more efficient design at the front end.

Luckily, one of the ways that our problem with IT products is worse actually makes for faster change. The turnover of computer products is much faster than those of many other manufactured goods. This means that with a computer having an active life of, say, 4-5 years, it's ready for the dump at the end of that time. Whereas an automobile or a refrigerator might stay in use for quite a bit longer.

Well. We don't have to think dark depressing thoughts about the wasteful manufacturing, shipping, and disposal of the IT products that make our professional lives what they are. But it definitely won't hurt us in the long run to be aware that there are such related issues.

And no one would disagree that we can do a better job at the part we can directly impact--end-of-life disposal. I don't know where the laptop and its components on which I am typing this is going to be in 20 years and I bet that's true for you, too. Shouldn't we at least begin to take some responsibility for disposal?

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