Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Will Earth Survive the Computer?

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Will Earth Survive the Computer?

Article excerpt

A friend who retired from the Environmental Protection Agency recently said to me: "The earth's life support systems will probably survive the automobile but probably not personal computers." She based her opinion on a United Nations University study released last year, which revealed a new understanding of the impact these necessary tools of the 21st century have on our environment.

According to this report, making the average personal computer requires 10 times the weight of the product in chemicals and fossil fuels. What's more, many of the chemicals are toxic, while the use of fossil fuels in making computer components contributes to global climate change. The short life of today's electronic equipment leads to Himalayas of waste, the report says. That waste is then dumped into landfills or recycled, too often in poorly managed facilities in developing countries, leading to significant health risks.

The study outlines the problem in detail. The manufacture of a 24-kilogram personal computer with a Pentium III processor and a 17-inch monitor needs at least 240 kilograms of fossil fuels to provide the energy, and 22 kilograms of chemicals. Add 1.5 tons of water, and your desktop has used up the weight of a SUV in materials before it even leaves the factory.

Compare this with cars or home appliances such as refrigerators, which use only between one and two times their weight in fossil fuels to make, and it is clear that making more than 130 million computers worldwide has an impact.

Computing equipment differs significantly from many other consumer products because the majority of the energy it uses over its lifetime--81 percent--is required during manufacturing. Most of the energy is used to run the plants where the computer chips are fabricated. "The overall demand of a typical chip plant is equivalent to the energy used by a city with 80,000 people," says Ted Smith, director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. …

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