It’s an old joke that a new computer is obsolete before you get it out of the box, but the seemingly endless rush to purchase new computers—PC sales continue to rise each year, passing the 200 million mark in 2005—have created an increasingly urgent environmental problem.
Old computers are notoriously hard to get rid of, as their value tends to drop off precipitously as they become obsolete. As a result, many old machines (at least the ones that don’t end up in my spare bedroom) wind up in a landfill, where the toxic chemicals found in their component parts slowly leak out into the environment. To try and mitigate this problem, Greenpeace has commissioned a study (PDF) by the research firm Ipsos-Mori that looks at whether or not PC owners would be willing to pay more for an environmentally friendly computer.
The study surveyed 9,042 individuals across nine countries, not including the United States. Subjects were asked a variety of questions including how much, if anything, they would be prepared to spend to purchase a more environmentally-friendly PC that would normally cost UK?500 (US$920). The study did not give specifics about what changes would be made to the computers to make them more environmentally friendly, nor give any indication as to what the changes would actually cost. The answers showed that even people in poorer countries were willing to part with more of their cash for an environmentally friendly computer:
Extra amounts that people in each country would be willing to pay for a “Green PC”
Mexico UK?32 (US$59)China UK?38 (US$70)Thailand ?47 (US$87)Great Britain UK?64 (US$118)Philippines UK?75 (US$139)Poland UK?108 (US$136) Germany UK?124 (US$156)
The study also looked at the reasons computer owners would be likely to replace their existing PC. The majority of the respondents cited the computer being “out of date” as the primary cause (38 percent), with a broken computer coming in second place at 27 percent and the need to upgrade to meet new software requirements finishing third at 20 percent. Most countries agreed that PCs contained hazardous materials, but almost all nations (with the exception of Poland) also believed that the PC industry had a much lower environmental impact than other industries. In fact, according to the BBC, the impact of personal computer trash is fairly important, with up to 70 percent of heavy metals such as lead and mercury—both extremely toxic substances—coming from “e-waste.”
The survey also showed that 49 percent of people believe that the primary responsibility for disposing of any hazardous waste lies with the PC manufacturers themselves, with 16 percent for individual owners, 12 percent for retail stores, and 13 percent for national governments. In the US, there has been proposed legislation for a National Computer Recycling Act that would add a US$10 administrative fee to the sale of new computers to fund recycling efforts, but it has so far failed to get off the ground.