So, I am looking to buy a new laptop. Before I launch myself off into the great wide beyond, it would be best if I replace the brick currently masquerading as my portal to the digital world with something that will turn on with the first try instead of the 8th, will not quit on me before I remember to save my work, and weighs a bit less than… well, a brick.
I have been thinking about this for a while, humming and haaing over the myriad options, reading up on specs, pondering the cost benefit ratio of a higher performing specimen versus a lighter model (cost being how much my back will gripe about the extra couple of kilos and whether the additional speed and storage would be worth paying for the resulting massages). I am aware that manufacturing technology such as new laptops is resource greedy. But, just how gluttonous is it for me to buy a new laptop?
As it turns out, a lot more gluttonous than I imagined! There is petroleum, silicon, and quite a few metals involved, and the hands of many miners and factory workers will have handled the heart and guts of my future laptop long before I ever lay eyes on it. Copper in the circuit board and wiring, tantalum for the capacitors, beryllium for the microprocessor, gold for the semiconductor, platinum for the hard drive, silver and tin in the solder, lead, mercury…
The extraction of these raw materials often has a high environmental price tag attached, paid out in installments of habitat destruction, polluted water sources, loss of biodiversity, along with big, ugly holes in the ground. The subsequent refining processes are again another costly step, including flooding rainforests to build dams for the hydro electricity needed to feed the conversion of bauxite to aluminium. These materials get shuffled around the world to various factories to build components that are then gathered in yet another factory for final assembly before being packaged and shipped to me.
“When you imagine how your computer came to life, you might think of California’s Silicon Valley, long the epicenter for the high-tech industry. Images of clean rooms, bunny suits, and sophisticated machinery for polishing silicon wafers might come to mind. Or you might picture China, where all products seem to get their start. But your computer’s environmental footprint includes a circuitous trip around the globe by way of some dirty mining operations before it reaches your desk.” Smarter Living: Your Computer’s Lifetime Journey
My laptop will have seen more of the world than I have. Raw materials could be coming from Mongolia, Congo, Chile, Australia, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Peru, and Mexico among others. Copper smelters in Sweden, tantalum precessing in Pennsylvania, bits and pieces made in the Philippines or Malaysia, hard drives from Singapore, chips from Ireland or Israel, and final assembly possibly in China. I’m getting jealous!
So, what can I do to reduce the impact of my decision to buy a laptop? Honestly, the greenest laptop is the one I already have. It’s continued use would mean no further new materials would be mined, shipped, processed, or handled in any way. Does it really need to be replaced? In my case, yes. The combination of it’s weight and age (more than 10 years old) means it is no longer the right tool for me. But, it may still be of some use to someone else, either refurbished or recycled for materials, so I will make sure that happens.
Check list for buying a green(er) laptop
1. Toxic Materials – Find a model that does not contain toxic materials: PVC, BFRs, phthalates, lead, mercury, arsenic, beryllium, and antimony are among the worst offenders.
2. Mining and Smelting – Research the mining and smelting practices for raw materials.
3. Labour Conditions – Look into the working conditions in mines, smelters, and factories for component fabrication and final assembly.
4. Energy Consumption – How much energy is used to create the laptop from the refining of raw materials to shipping components and the final product around the world?
5. Recycled Materials – How much of the laptop is built from recycled materials versus new?
6. Lifespan – Expected life of laptop before it will start to fail or be replaced, factors include quality of product as well as intended use.
7. Recycling Program – How easy is it to recycle laptop components, and does the company have a recycling program in place?
8. Battery – Type of battery and battery life before it will have to be replaced.
9. Screen – Type and size of screen, generally, the larger the screen the bigger the energy drain.
10. Energy Use – How much power does it take to run and is it possible to turn components off when not needed? Energy star ratings will help here.
11. Internal Construction – Is it easy to swap out parts such as the battery for repair or replacement? The easier it is, the more likely individual broken parts will be replaced as needed instead of the laptop as a whole.
12. Buy used/refurbished instead of brand new, from a reputable seller.
This is a lot to do on my own. Fortunately I am not the only person who is concerned about the footprint of my electronic devices. There are a few standards out there such as EPEAT along with a variety of independent groups who have created lists of the greenest laptops on the market based on some or all of the criteria I listed above. Here is my shortlist after comparing what folks have to say:
- Acer TravelMate
- Asus Bamboo & TCO laptops
- HP Elitebook
- Lenovo Thinkpad
- MacBook Air
- Toshiba Protégé
As I was reading reviews I kept stumbling across praise for Apple’s commitment to improving it’s ecological footprint over the past couple of years. They seem to be the most responsive to requests for change, as can be seen with their increasing transparency with regards to the chain of raw material and component suppliers leading to the final product. Greenpeace acknowledges Apple’s recent efforts but cautions that there is still room for improvement.
Apple is also the only company to have eliminated the use of toxic materials from all of their products, according to a Greenpeace report published in Septembre 2014. Adding to this the steps Apple has taken to reduce the ecological footprint in other areas of the company outside of their line of electronics as stated on their own website, and I may have found my next laptop.
I still have time before I have to make my final decision, so I will look more closely at the rest of the options on my list. In the meantime I would love to hear if anyone else has taken into consideration the footprint of their computer. Was it a deciding factor or just a bonus?