This case study will discuss the environmental impact of the modern day desktop computer. The study will include a brief discussion of it components and resource consumption in terms of primary and secondary manufacturing, transport, packaging and power consumption. Through government implemented environmental regulation; including the ISO 14000,certification, computer manufacturing companies are moving toward more environmentally sound policies. This study will provide a brief summary of these new policies and industrial development specifically with examples and statements from IBM Corp. Some of the information and conclusions discussed in this study is based on the environmental impact of the general computer industry, the study recognizes that computer technology differs and its impacts vary.
Computer Technology and Composition The modern computer is generally composed of; but not restricted to, a hard drive, LCD monitor, keyboard, mouse and a series of connection cables. The interior hard drive is composed of interconnected Silicon Microchips, copper and precious metals; powered by lithium rechargeable batteries, containing highly toxic and ozone depleting acids. The LCD monitor is also powered by lithium batteries and composed of Liquid Crystal.
The Exterior is generally built from a light mechanical plastic usually composed of trace amounts of toxic lead, ether, cadmium and chloroparaffins. The Keyboard and Mouse contain similar but less toxic plastics, copper and Silicon Microchips. Primary Manufacturing-Production of Components The majority of computer components are made from none renewable resources. Computers are highly material intensive and together with secondary manufacturing it accounts for 66-76 percent of its resource consumption. Resource consumption can vary based on the size of the product. For a 6 kg desktop computer consumption can range from 400 to 800 kg of abiotic raw material. These resources are mined on offshore locations and shipped to manufacturing plants for secondary manufacturing. Mining is conducted using all practical and current methods, which in most cases is destructive and irreversible.
Secondary Manufacturing Secondary manufacturing accounts for the largest environmental impact. The production of plastics and the manipulation of raw metals require highly toxic non-biodegradable chemicals. IBM Corp. produces 23,776 metric tons of hazardous waste annually from its ten productions sites; only 53.2 percent is recycled and reused in production. In 2001 IBM Corp. produced 167,000 metric tons of non-hazardous waste; including but not restricted too, wood, non-hazardous chemicals, construction debris, metal and trash.
34 percent or 56,780 metric tons of waste was sent to garbage dumps. Computer manufacturing is not only a highly material intensive process but a vastly energy intensive process. As a result high amounts of Carbon Dioxide are released in to the air through energy production. In 2001, through the use of fuel, oil and natural gas IBM. Corp used 5,228 million kWhrs of electricity, which accounted approximately for 3,247,000 tons of Carbon Dioxide emissions. Carbon Dioxide is an ozone depleting gas that can cause immediate effects such as Global warming and the greenhouse effect.
Transportation Computer products are generally produced internationally shipped to a central assembly location and sent to the consumer. Resource consumption and environmental impact as a result of transportation is considered to be the lowest contributor. Products are shipped by land, air and sea vehicles; all of which are powered by fossil fuels which produce toxic emissions. The general resource consumption figure is 4 kg of raw materials per device.
Packaging Before the finished product is shipped to the consumer or distributor, the product is packaged to ensure the safety and appeal of the product. Packaging like transportation contributes to a significantly lower percentage of the products overall resource consumption. The material is generally made of up plastics and styrophoam, which although reusable, is generally not recycled when in the hands of the consumer. Plastics and styrophoam when not recycled properly can take thousands of years to biodegrade and contribute greatly to total public garbage production.
Product Power Consumption. Power consumption in terms of the products life cycle can vary with two major variables. The first is the overall energy efficiency of the product and the second is the actual consumer usage of the product. For this reason it is hard to determine the exact figures. Computers are however a machine, which use complicated devices and processes that, requires large amounts of electricity. Individually each device causes a relatively low environmental impact in terms of energy production and Carbon Dioxide emissions. In 2001 a survey conducted on computer usage concluded that 51 percent of U.S homes have one or more computers. Collectively total computer power consumption has the potential to consume mass amount of energy and produce large amounts of Carbon Dioxide emissions.
Limitations and Potential Improvements. The industry has lots of room for improvement on both the manufacturing and product levels. In terms of both hazardous and non-hazardous waste, companies such as IBM Corp. must continue to advance in its waste production policies and containment methods. In the past five years IBM Corp. has reduced its waste production by 76 percent, which is a significant improvement. Still the industry is limited because the technology still does not exist to produce the same quality product with re-usable, non-hazardous, non-resource consuming materials. In terms of energy consumption, the industry must move towards sustainable energy sources such as wind, water and solar power. The product itself must continue to be improved to become more energy and material efficient for the consumer.
The production of smaller more mobile devices and the recent energy star product certification seen on most modern computers should assist in those improvements. The industry’s economic success is based on technological development and a result most computers are set with a standard life-cycle limitation, which in turn forces consumers to constantly buy new more powerful machines. The industry must realize their environmental impact and extend the life cycle of their machines and allow a more upgradeable interface.