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Computers are made almost entirely of plastic, a product from oil that has to be refined and leaves a huge carbon foot print in the process. Running one uses electricity, from burning coal or damming up rivers for hydroelectricity. Coal generators emit fluorocarbons into the air which causes acid rains and destroys the Ozone protecting the earths atmosphere. Dams block the passage of migratory fish and warms the water resulting in baby fish dying from the warm water.
Governments and firms are increasingly responding to mitigate some of the problems. In the E.U., Japan, and Taiwan, mountains of waste computers are being dealt with via legislation mandating recycling.
These questions are taken up in a new edited volume in the Eco-Efficiency in Industry and Science series of Kluwer Academic Publishers: Computers and the Environment, edited by Ruediger Kuehr and Eric Williams. Collecting perspectives from manufacturers, recyclers, environmental scientists and policy analysts, the volume presents a set of analyses on issues important for understanding and planning response to the environmental challenges posed by computers. Manufacturing computers is materials intensive; the total fossil fuels used to make one desktop computer weigh over 240 kilograms, some 10 times the weight of the computer itself. This is very high compared to many other goods: For an automobile or refrigerator, for example, the weight of fossil fuels used for production is roughly equal to their weights. Also, substantial quantities of chemicals (22 kg), and water (1,500 kg) are also used. The environmental impacts associated with using fossil fuels (e.g. climate change), chemicals (e.g. possible health effects on microchip production workers) and water (e.g. scarcity in some areas) are significant and deserve attention. The environmental benefits and economic costs of recycling computers under the European Union legislation WEEE depend very much on how the system is implemented. Recycling managed by a monopolist concern, whose main interest is meeting simple recycling targets for a fixed fee, could result in an expensive system with relatively small environmental benefit. A multilateral concern aimed at maximizing profit and reuse across the life cycle presents a more promising picture. Decisions by consumers on how PCs are used and disposed of have an enormous effect on environmental impacts. Extending the usable life is very effective for reducing all types of burdens, but relatively few older PCs are being resold, refurbished or recycled - most are stored in warehouses, basements, or closets and eventually end up in landfills. Awareness building and incentives are needed so that consumers will consider environmental issues when buying, using and finally disposing of a computer.
Identifying the Need
Although computers can be used as a tool to spread awareness about problems in the environment, they cause a lot of environmental problems themselves. Pollution caused by the production of computer hardware, as well as from the cleaning agents used to clean computers, is a great hazard to the
environment and the people that live in it. People leave their computers on non stop resulting in a lot of energy consumption and enormous amounts of paper are being used daily to print out electronically stored data. () It causes health problems as well as economic problems and is in urgent need of treatment.
IT Background of the Issue
When examining the problem of pollution caused by computers and their production, it is evident that all computer hardware is responsible for the problem, for it is the hardware's production that causes the pollution. Pieces of hardware such as keyboards, monitors, mice etc are all made out of plastic which is usually not recyclable. Other chemicals found in these tools are also often bad for the environment and cause damage.
As a result of the assembly of pieces inside the computer such as wafers and computer chips a lot of toxic materials are given off causing further harm to the environment.
The evolution of computers causes harm because old computers are often thrown out only to be replaced by larger computers, which consume more energy and therefore cause even more pollution. They too, will eventually be thrown out and replaced.
As the demand for larger monitors and more memory chips grows due to developments in multimedia, so does the level of toxins and fumes released into the environment contributing even more to the problem. These are given off when the monitors and chips are being produced and manufactured.
Analyzing the Impact of the Issue
The pollution caused by computers has a large effect on society. It has effects on the environment due to paper consumption, energy consumption and harm caused by toxins. This harm affects people's health and results in large economic expenses.
Contrary to former beliefs that computers will lower the amount of paper used around the world, computers just contribute to making this use larger. In addition to making it easier to print out several copies of the same document, surveys show that most people would rather read something off a piece of paper than off a screen. According to the World Watch Paper survey of 1993, the paper consumption of PCs reached 115 billion sheets of paper, a number that has since grown. () All this use of paper costs business owners a lot of money for they need to provide their offices with paper, and costs the government money because it needs to build recycling sites.
Further environmental problems caused by computers include a large amount of energy consumption during the production of computers as well as by the use of computers. "For the manufacturing of a normal PC approx. 30'000 megajoule in energy are used." (uns.umnw.ethz.ch)
Computer upgrading is also harmful because the more new computer models produced, the more old models get thrown out. This computer waste is rarely recycled for it costs too much money. Collecting all this waste and discarding it safely costs a lot of money too, resulting in further expenses.
Perhaps the most alarming problem however, is the release of toxic chemicals that are used in the production of computer hardware and in the disposal of computers. In the manufacturing of just one 8 inch wafer 4,267 cubic feet of bulk gases, 27 pounds of chemicals, 29 cubic feet of hazardous gases and 9 pounds of hazardous waste are given off. In addition over 3787 gallons of water are wasted. All the chemicals and toxins that are released often end up polluting ground water and harming peoples health. A woman in San Jose gave birth to a child with serious heart defects caused by this pollution. () Even cleaning agents for computer equipment (such as chloroflourocarbons) are bad for the environment - they are extremely harmful to the ozone layer.
All these cause great economic difficulties for cleaning all the pollution up costs a lot of money. Often governments cannot afford to spend money on building recycling plants for computer hardware and therefore the problem is not dealt with. Computer manufacturing companies are at times sued because of the harm their wastes cause by individuals as well as by environment-protection groups like Green Peace.
Overall, computer pollution is a great problem that most people do not acknowledge even exists. It is in urgent need of being solved.
Solutions to Problems arising from the issue
There are several methods to dealing with computer pollution. One is stopping computer use and production around the world and another is making computer manufactures pay a percentage of their annual profits to the government, in order to fund the building of recycling sites and to clean up polluted areas such as water reservoirs. Both have advantages and disadvantages
Banning the use of computers and their production around the world would stop the pollution problem they cause. Since they will no longer be produced, the pollution given off during the process of their assembly will be stopped. Additional harm such as the cutting down of trees to make paper for printing documents and for the packaging of computers would also be stopped for there would no longer be a need for these.
By banning the use of computers by people, the pollution caused by the energy consumption used to run the computers would be no longer be an issue for it would not exist.
Although computer pollution would cease to exist, this solution would have many social, ethical, economic and even psychological results. Socially, it could be both good and bad. People in close environments would meet in person rather then email one another. People would also go out more rather than spend time in front of their computers playing computer games and browsing the Internet. The negative social implications this would have is that systems all over the world would no longer function for a lot of systems such as phone systems, postal services, hospitals etc work run on computers, would not longer be able to function efficiently. Also, people who live far away from one another and communicate via email or IRC would no longer be able to do this. In addition, people would lose all the comfort and advantages that computers and computer systems provide such as the ability to retrieve information easily.
The ethical implication of this ban on computers would be that millions of people all over the world would lose their jobs. Anyone working in a computer-related job such as computer technicians, web designers etc would loose their jobs as well as others who deliver and package computers and computer parts.
In the economic aspect many companies would go through a crisis. Not being able to use computers would mean that production rates would be much lower and much less efficient. Governments would loose a lot of money for trade would be low and individuals would loose money for many would loose their jobs, and product prices would rise for supply will be low. In addition, a black market for computers would probably evolve creating legal problems.
As the unemployment rate would be huge, many people would develop psychological fears and problems. Children will live in fear over their parents loosing their jobs and parents will live in fear of not being able to provide to their children everything that they need.
A big part of the computer pollution problem is the lack of money to produce recycling plants. If every company producing computers and computer parts was forced to pay a certain percentage of their annual profits (i.e. 1%) to the government, then enough money would be collected to produce recycling centers for all the computers produced. Left over money could be used to help clean up polluted areas. By doing so, the damage already made by computers - for example the toxins found in drinking water in Silicon Valley ( could be reversed via purification. Computer parts thrown away in garbage dumps could too, be recycled.
Enforcing this tax has social, economic and ethical issues attached to it. The social impact of this solution is both positive and negative. As a result of the collection and then use of this money, clean neighborhoods with a clean environment would evolve. Also, people would be more aware of the problem and would probably pollute less in order to keep the percentage paid to the government minimal. The negative aspect is that manufacturing companies would most likely be against having to pay parts of their profits and might even protest against it.
Economic wise, this solution is also positive and negative. Governments would not have to worry about taking money out of their budgets in order to pay for recycling plants for the tax would provide a source of income for this. Computer companies would not have to worry about being sued because of health problems and environmental problems caused as a result of their computer hardware production. The negative side of the tax is that it would probably raise the prices of computers making the consumer pay more money. This could hurt the country's economy if foreign companies stop importing the computer products because they are too expensive. Also, companies would loose a part of their profit because they would have to give it to the government.
The only ethical problem with putting a tax on computer manufacturing is that computer manufactures could complain that they are being taxed while other industries such as the clothes production industry is not.
When comparing the two, it is clear to see that putting a tax on computer manufacturing would be better than banning the use and production of computers. It would cost computer manufacturing companies money yet it will help clear up pollution already caused by computers and it will not paralyze systems around the world. Since so much of the world depends on computers, banning computers would cause a huge world crisis and it would most likely not be worth preventing computer pollution for it because it would cause so many other problems.