There's a fringe of products in electronics the makers say will save the world, but can they really reduce our impact on the global environment – even if we all adopt them?
Everybody wants to save the world, right?
There's a fringe of products in electronics the makers say will save the world, but can they really reduce our impact on the global environment – even if we all adopt them? Over the past few years terms like brominated flame retardants, cadmium and coltan have found their way into technology circles because of industry efforts by big corporate names to phase harmful elements out of manufacturing.
Other companies are going further.
Doing their bit is Irish PC manufacturer Micropro, who are banking on a range of products, Iameco, where PCs, cases, keyboards, monitors and mice do away with most of the metals and plastics of PC manufacture in favour of wood.
The exterior is more than just for show. The company claims their touchscreen PC produces less than 360 kilograms of CO2 over the product's life – 70 per cent less than a typical desktop PC with monitor. In addition, 98 per cent of the materials used can be recycled.
Then there's recomputepc.com, which takes what it calls a sustainable approach to the manufacture, life and disposal of a PC. The company, which is aiming at a slice of the educational market, claims most of the energy consumed by a single PC is during the manufacturing process because of factory-level output volumes. Their solution is to make the case out of sliced stacks of corrugated cardboard, covered in non-toxic flame retardant.
As founder Brendan Macaluso explains, "the cardboard isn't just about being recyclable, it's more about making an extreme example."
They look great, but can products like this really make a difference?
"Generally the use of metal in consumable IT provides the light-weight protective properties you need to protect processing and memory modules," says Rod Bonnette, Australia & New Zealand general manager for Sims Recycling Solutions, in defence of metal over wood and other "green" materials.
For one thing, the theory behind a metal and plastic computer is that the parts can be recycled almost endlessly. "In principle we can achieve [a 'closed loop' of recycling] if manufacturers produce goods that can be recycled efficiently [and] separated on a safe and commercial basis," Bonnette adds.
"We currently look at recycling recoveries between 90-100 per cent depending on the product, and we look for appropriate re-use outlets. Our goal is to recover as much material from the recycling stream as possible."
Of course, there's the other possibility that greening technology on the desktop is fruitless when so much IT is moving on to smartphone and tablet devices. The demand for serving more and more data to mobile devices and the skyrocketing popularity of cloud computing means a proliferation of huge server farms and data centres filling up with hardware as fast as we can build them. As Rodney Gedda, analyst with Telsyte research, colloquially puts it, "if Facebook didn't exist 100,000 servers wouldn't be running".
But Andrew Schrage of financial advice website Moneycrashers.com, which discusses the environmental factors of investing and markets, thinks that only means we have to take a whole-of-industry view and promote environmental awareness wherever we can, even if it means wooden PCs.
"Some experts predict there will be nearly two billion individual computers in use on Earth by the year 2016," he says. "According to the UN Environmental Program, between 20 and 50 million [tonnes] of electronic waste is generated worldwide each year and the EPA says only about 15-20 per cent of e-waste is currently recycled.
"Until these numbers are improved, green tech devices will play a major role in reducing e-waste."