E-Business Commentary -- Where Have All the PCs Gone?

Dec. 21, 2004
As old computers are discarded, environmental pressures mount.

Have you heard of DFE or LCA? More software acronyms? Not exactly. DFE, or design for environment, and LCA, life-cycle assessment, are fast becoming buzz terms in the high-tech industry as concerns over its effect on the environment continue to grow. IBM Corp., for instance, follows what it calls systematic environmental assessment (SEA). "We need to integrate environmental considerations into all aspects of our decision-making," explains Dewey Pitts, senior engineer at the IBM Engineering Center for Environmentally Conscious Products. IBM's SEA process takes into account not only the environmental implications of materials and product design, but also toxicology, occupational health, demanufacturing, and product safety. Those issues are balanced against the hard realities of doing business. "The top environmental choice is not always feasible," Pitts says. "I've got to be competitive. I've got to deliver product on time." That's where push comes to shove in the "green" arena -- the point at which companies must decide whether to go with what's most economical and easiest, or with what's best for the planet. "The most important thing is to get your green ideas into the product concept," says Ab Stevels, a professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, who also works for Royal Philips Electronics NV. Stevels relates a story about the Philips "Green TV" project. It seems that one of Philips' innovative product developers had come up with a television that used 39% less energy and 32% less plastic by weight, was fabricated out of 69% recycled materials, and was 93% recyclable. Unfortunately, the product didn't make it to market, largely because its creator failed to consider such issues as time to market, marketing, and relative ease of manufacturing. Some observers think the high-tech industry has been a green leader; but others, most notably environmental groups, disagree. "Two industries have driven design for the environment, and they are electronics/telecommunications and automotive," says Arpad Horvath, professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. For example, he says there has been a steady downward trend in the use of toxic materials in computers. But Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, San Jose, points out that the average PC contains all manner of toxic materials, including cadmium, mercury, and chromium -- metals used in computer circuit boards. What's more, the real tidal wave of electronic products has yet to hit home. "Most of the problem for the electronics industry hasn't hit the street yet," says Horvath. "It's still sitting as a skeleton in our closet. We have become an 'attic' society, not a 'throwaway' society." What he's referring to, of course, are the untold millions of old PCs sitting around in people's basements, attics, and garages. By one estimate, 125 million PCs will hit the nation's landfills by 2010. That's an awful lot of lead solder and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to bury inside the earth. Most PCs, when they're obsolete or used up, Horvath says, "go to landfills right now." But the good news, Horvath believes, is that electronics and PC manufacturers are becoming more aware of the need to be green. Some, such as Apple Computer Inc., are starting to pay attention to such concepts as DFE and LCA when designing their products. "In the next 10 years, electronics equipment will become more recyclable and reusable than it is today," he says. A key DFE principle is that of take-back i.e., the idea that the manufacturer takes responsibility for the product when its useful life has expired. "Xerox has no machine that is 100% virgin. Every one has components that are recycled," Horvath says. "That's the idea of product take-back. You assume control of the product at the end of its life." The auto-parts industry already has embraced this concept, with the recycling of starters, generators, batteries, even brake parts. Oil, paper, glass, plastics -- all these industries, and many more currently participate in major recycling or product reuse efforts. But electronics, including the PC industry, has been slow to the recycling party. Germany has passed legislation requiring product take-back in electronics. Comments UC Berkeley's Horvath, "That's not coming to the U.S. yet."

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