When IT equipment is recycled, particular in the UK, we read about the collaborative responsibility of society. The same ethics and government theory apply to used Electrical White goods, cars and other goods labeled “recyclable materials”. Taking part in the recycling industry long enough, I have the experience to know that it does not simply mean to wash when it comes to a “Greener ethos”.
The idea behind recycling stems from the need to re-use and thus reduce our reliance upon new, somewhat “scarce” resources. Similarly, the more that is recycled, the less that is placed in landfill or simply “dumped”. These apply to:
Plastics, which are refined from Oil- a now scarce and somewhat expensive resource (near enough $ 100 per barrel at the time of writing this).
Metals: Steel is produced from iron and carbon. Iron has to be extracted from the ground. Copper is again extracted from the ground, as is Gold, platinum and Silver.
The above materials, once refined from their raw state are used in everything from Fridges, Microwaves, Cars and Mobile Phones (Cell Phones) to Computers. Life expectancy for such goods, once manufactured can be anything from a year to 10 years, after which, they reach the end of their useful lifespan and are removed from the consumer chain.
Imagine for a minute that a carbon footprint has been created through their manufacture. This has happened because of the energies put into the materials to mould, solder, weld, cut and fix them together. The carbon footprint associated with the goods has been further increased through their extraction from the ground, but assuming recycling of the materials takes place, this footprint has been created once and will have little impact if the materials are re-used again and again. Imagine, if you will that the carbon footprint associated with the manufacture of the goods is proportioned to the life span of the goods. A car has a life expectancy of 10 years, so the carbon released into the atmosphere as a direct result of it’s production is going to be quite small, when compared to it’s lifespan. The same cannot be said for Cell Phones or computers. Consumer marketing, development and competition between manufacturers and companies selling the consumer goods has had a stupefying impact upon the carbon footprint associated with these goods.
In the west, particularly Great Britain, the need for competition between the 5 major Mobile Operators has resulted in many customers upgrading their Mobile/ cell phones every 12 months. The old handset is usually discarded at worst of recycled at best. The computer industry isn’t much better. Of the computers built in say 2002, many are now being discarded due to obsolescence. By obsolescence, I’m not referring to the fact that they’re of no use any more. What I mean is that the Computer World has moved on and is now offering a computer 6 times as fast (Computer speeds double each year). New innovations and the need to keep up with the latest software, let alone the ‘jones’s’ has driven this market forward. So what’s the point to this report? Well, here’s some stark facts that they’re not telling you about recycling of these goods:
When a computer, monitor or mobile phone is produced, a Carbon footprint is created (I know, I’ve already said this) but…
Compare these two:
You dump your Computer/ Cell Phone in a landfill and go out to buy a new one. The carbon footprint for the old computer or handset is now at an end. Your new computer or phone now has the Carbon footprint associated with it’s fabrication and materials extraction.
Alternatively, you take your phone to a recycler, who then strips
it down and sends off the metals to one refinery and plastics to another. The materials associated with these goods have now got a second carbon footprint and will soon get a third when they’re moulded back into something new.
If you weigh up the two scenarios, the first will produce a smaller overall release of Carbon Dioxide than the second. The only good done is a reduction in the raw materials that need to be extracted for production purposes
Saying all this, there’s a completely different option:
DO YOU REALLY NEED TO BUY NEW?
Simple as that. We are recycling computers each and every day at our works. We pull out perfectly good and in some cases, amazing computer monitors from UK companies, just because they don’t run quite fast enough or won’t load the very latest software. In effect, in order to maintain a healthy competition with other companies, corporations have to continually scrap their old systems and upgrade. Computers are still useable and will fulfil every day needs for the average consumer, as will the computer monitors. The only problem for us is that 6/10 consumers want the best and latest and don’t feel comfortable buying used. Why? Well, I guess it’s society’s fault more than anything else. Most of our customers own or run small businesses and can’t afford the latest, so they come to us for their kit. Now imagine that the equipment we sell them has it’s original carbon footprint associated with it’s manufacture. The only addition it’ll have during the next 3 years will be… well the transportation of it when we collected it… and the transportation to it’s new home.
Okay, I hear you say… what about the carbon footprint associated with it’s use. New TFT screens use less energy. Fair enough, but not much less and besides, a new computer draws far more power than one 3 years old. It has more powerful processors, more fans, additional cards etc… that’s why Apple and Dell are having a tough time with laptop batteries: The laptops are more powerful, need more powerful batteries, which well, needed to be recalled because they were overheating! Similarly, cell phones/ mobiles are increasing in power consumption. They have larger screens, colour screens, take add-on cards, are polyphonic, play real tunes, have built in mp3 players and therefore need more powerful processors. The fact is, these all-in-one handsets draw on average far more power than those produced 12-24 months ago. By end of life, a new model will have a larger carbon footprint than one made 2-3 years ago.
All You’ve got to do in order to reduce your carbon footprint further is switch the damn thing off: Don’t put your monitor into standby. A CRT consumes about 10 watts per hour in standby and up to 165 watts when on. Switch it off and the consumption is ZERO. If everyone in London (about 2 million office workers in London) did that at the end of a day’s work, we’d be looking at saving (10 x 2million)= 20,000 kW. It’s about what an average household would consume over a 4 year period.
About the Author:
Richard A Johnson is director of http://www.forevermac.com Limited and runs a http://www.it-green.co.uk Computer recycling business in association with Computer displays (UK) Limited.
Copyright 2006 Richard Johnson BEng (Hons), MSc (Eng)