Computing and environmentalism are difficult to reconcile. While computers theoretically allow for a paperless society and reduced use of physical goods, these potential benefits have yet to be widely embraced. As a result, computers seem to be a negative impact; they require a lot of resources to create, some of them relatively rare, and they’re very difficult to recycle.
There are some ways to be more responsible with your choices, however. Not all computers are built in the same way, and disposal options are vastly different. Here are five things you can do to reduce your impact on planet Earth.
Buy From A (Relatively) Responsible Manufacturer
Electronics manufacturing has the potential to be a serious environmental hazard. Hardware fabrication requires a lot of rare materials and chemicals which can be a hazard to humans, animals and plant life. To make matters worse, some electronics are built with materials known to be environmentally damaging and/or difficult to dispose of over time, like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics.
To help decide what manufacturer deserves your environmentally concerned dollars, you can consult several online resources. Greenpeace’s Greener Electronics guide ranks sixteen manufacturers on a scale of 1-to-10 and provides a comprehensive report card for each. The EPA has a website called the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool that can help you find the least hazardous products. And the Energy Star website provides information about how energy use is ranked.
Conserve Power With A Laptop
Buying a computer is only part of its total environmental impact. Power use is another important factor, particularly in regions that still rely heavily on coal for power. Your computer is only as clean as the power grid it’s connected to.
This makes laptops a great choice for people who want to reduce their environmental impact. A modern ultrabook uses about 10 watts of power at idle and rarely more than 25 watts of power at load. A desktop, on the other hand, will usually consume at least 30 watts at idle and 80 watts (or more!) at load.
And that’s just the desktop tower; the monitor will consume another 10 to 50 watts, depending on size. Modern laptops also tend to power down and boot quickly and have a variety of low-power states, which encourages the use of power-saving settings.
Make no mistake; this difference isn’t likely to reduce your power bill by more than a few bucks. But every watt saved is one less you’re demanding from the power grid.
Reuse With A Desktop
While laptops conserve power, they’re not the best option for every user. Some people will always need the power a desktop provides, or prefer the benefits of having a keyboard and mouse separate from the computer itself.
Those who use a desktop can still reduce their impact by upgrading instead of buying an entirely new computer. While most people will be comfortable replacing their processor or motherboard, the hard drive, RAM and video card are relatively easy to upgrade at home. Doing so can significantly increase the life a PC. To further reduce your impact, you can re-sell or recycle the parts that remove for your desktop during the upgrade (see the next two sections).
If you do decide to completely re-build your desktop, consider re-using existing parts. Components like the power supply, enclosure, hard drives and optical drive can usually be salvaged and used in a new desktop. Going with this approach will also save you money because you’ll only need to buy a few new components.
One final tip; pick your peripherals carefully, and buy used when possible. Computer monitors are a great example; they’re durable, there’s a large used market, and used monitors can still provide excellent image quality. Speakers, keyboards and mice can also last a very long time. Only printers stand out as being difficult to buy used, and that’s mostly because manufacturers eventually stop manufacturing ink replacements for old printers.
Buy Used, Sell Used
Another way to reduce your computing footprint is to not buy new at all. Instead, buy a used laptop or computer, or one that’s been refurbished by a manufacturer. You can do this even if you’d like to have a relatively new computer, as many people need to re-sell a recently purchased device for one reason or another. Manufacturer warranties on electronics are usually transferable, as well, so you’ll still be covered if anything breaks.
Some readers might wonder; does this really help? Buying a used system might just free up another person to buy a new computer. That’s true; but by purchasing used, you contribute to demand in the used market, which ensures systems are re-used instead of thrown away. Far more computers would end up in a dumpster if they could not be re-sold.
You can go a step further by re-selling your computer when you’re done with it. Old computers don’t sell for much, but they do sell, so giving a computer a final life with someone who doesn’t need the latest-and-greatest can be a good choice. There are still people who make do with a computer that’s 10 years old (or more!)
If You Must Throw Away, Recycle
Of course, some computers don’t last ten years. Accident claims a few, hardware malfunction claims others, and in unfortunate cases you may be forced to retire a PC that’s no more than a few years old. In these cases you have a few options.
One is to see if there’s a local organization that will still accept a broken computer. Large metropolitan cities areas often have a few shops that essentially act as the PC equivalent of a pick-and-pull. You can donate your broken computer (even if it’s a laptop) and the shop will re-sell it as-is for a small fee, or attempt to restore and re-sell it for more. Either way, your old computer will find a home.
If you can’t find such a shop, or you don’t think the computer is at all salvageable, you can instead try a recycling center. A Google search for “electronics recycling” should bring up options in your area, and residents of the United States can find recycling centers through the EPA website. Some centers charge a small fee, so double-check before you make a trip.
There’s no fantasy ending to the tale of green computing. Any device requires some amount of environmental damage to manufacturer, but unless you swear off computers entirely, that’s a fact you must live with.
Following the tips above, however, will reduce your impact. You’ll demand less power and reduce the amount of hazardous electronics waste that ends up in land-fills. If everyone followed the four tips above, we’d likely live in a cleaner world; for now, you can only do your part and tell others how easy it is to reduce their environmental impact.
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