[How to stop] killing the planet one laptop at a time

Steve Haskew, strategic commercial manager at Circular Computing, discusses tech’s impact on the environment, and how the education sector can mitigate waste

Modern-day laptops can do almost anything required of them in our schools and universities; they’re thinner, faster and more powerful than ever. However, most are exchanged and replaced with little thought given to the impact on our planet.

Did you know that a typical computer chip factory in China uses enough electricity from coal-fired power stations to power a small city? That children as young as four are employed in the mines of Congo’s conflict regions, where 60% of the world’s supply of critical minerals are used to manufacture our computers and gadgets? Or that e-waste is one of the fastest growing landfill problems globally?


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As we move into the hopeful era of a circular economy, it’s important to investigate how we can enjoy these everyday items without damaging people and the planet.

It takes 1.7 tonnes of materials to make one new laptop and over 160 million new laptops are made every year. But 160,000 are thrown away every day in the EU alone. 70% of those laptops could be reused.

Our demand for new IT is not driven by a real need. It’s driven by a false perception that our organisations can’t operate without the newest makes and models. The result is excessive resource consumption, climate change, conflict mining, human rights issues, pollution and e-waste.

Water usage

Laptops are water-intensive – it takes around 100,000 litres of water to make just one new laptop. That’s almost an entire week in an average shower!

Climate change

The IT industry is responsible for up to 2% of greenhouse gases worldwide, which may not sound like much, but is equal to the entire aviation industry. Studies indicate that this percentage will rise to as high as 3.6% by 2020 and 14% by 2040.

A university buying 5,000 brand-new laptops will indirectly contribute 1.9 million kilograms of CO2e into the atmosphere.

An average of 380kg of CO2e is released during the production of a new laptop, adding to the increased warming of the planet. To put this into perspective, a university buying 5,000 brand-new laptops will indirectly contribute 1.9 million kilograms of CO2e into the atmosphere.

Human rights

When we buy a new computer, we are responsible for vulnerable communities working in hazardous conditions to produce the raw materials needed for manufacture.

Computers are often made in China by low paid (or no pay in some IT factories) workers in difficult conditions. In some cases, these workers are students, who are then failed in their exams if they do not meet production demand.

Pollution

The chemicals used in the extraction, processing and production of new computers can be hazardous. Making new computers is energy-intensive and toxic.

Pollutants enter the earth and affect the food chain. China is the factory of the world and one of the most polluted places on Earth, causing incidences of major ground water contamination and poisoning of workers.

E-waste

Despite laws forbidding it, China, Africa and other developing countries have become dumping grounds for an estimated 30% of our electronic waste.

In these countries, local e-waste ‘pickers’ (often children) are exposed to harmful toxins on e-waste sites. The exposure to these harmful toxins has caused death in some cases, and the long-term damage to local populations and the environment is still unknown.


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As with most industries, there are ways around this dangerous process – we can purchase second-hand, refurbished or remanufactured. We can keep our devices until they break, rather than try to keep up with the newest models. We can lease rather than buy.

It’s time to think more about what chucking our laptop in favour of the latest upgrade does to the planet, not just about what it does for us. The delight we take in our shiny new device is quite literally unsustainable.

Keep an eye out for our special report on education’s responsibility to address the climate crisis in the September issue of ET.