How much more would you be willing to pay for a non-toxic computer? "Uh, how is a computer toxic?" you ask, "and why does it matter?." Consider the amount of PCs that will be thrown out in the U.S. over the next few years (imagine a 22-story pile of old computers covering the entire 472 square miles of the City of Los Angeles, one study estimates) and the sort of nasty stuff that goes with them (flame retardant chemicals, plastics, and heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury) when they get dumped in poor villages in India and China. According to a new nine-country survey (PDF summary here) conducted on behalf of Greenpeace by Ipsos-Mori, PC users in Mexico are most ready to put the green where the green is: on average, those surveyed would shell out $226 extra for an eco-PC; in China, PC users would pay $199 more. German users, on the other end of the spectrum, would be willing to pay only $58 more for an environmentally-friendly computer. Any way you read them, the results are promising--and computer makers are already listening. Big-time recycler Dell has just promised to tackle the problem of contaminating e-waste by eliminating the use of some toxic chemicals in its products by 2009. While Greenpeace reports that other companies, including Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson, have made similar commitments to get greener in the near future, still lagging behind are Acer, Fujitsu-Siemens, IBM, Lenovo, Panasonic, Siemens, Toshiba and Apple, even if it recently succumbed to pressure to institute a recycling program. Meanwhile, Greenpeace singled out Motorola as the only one of the top five cellular phone manufacturers that has failed to remove toxic chemicals from its production process, and says it has "backtracked" on environmental promises made previously.
The Greenpeace survey also shows that computer users in the Philippines would be most willing to replace their current PC with a more environmentally-friendly model, while users in China--where 4 million computers go to die every year--are most concerned about environmental aspects (such as energy consumption and the presence of toxic chemicals) when purchasing a new computer.
That may come as no surprise, since, after all, as the world's computer graveyard, China (along with India, where not enough PC users exist to conduct the survey) is awash in toxins from e-waste. As Greenpeace researchers showed last year, a whole rainbow of toxic chemicals and metals can be found in the rivers, groundwater, and indoor dusts in southern China and in districts near New Delhi where electronics are recycled. Dust samples from batter dismantling workshops in India were found to contain 8.8 percent lead by weight lead and 20 percent cadmium—a level some 40 thousand times higher than typical indoor dust samples. And, as some samples found at the sites indicate, waste is still being exported illegally from the United States (note the computer part found in China with a New York Stock Exchange logo emblazoned on its side).
Until green computers start appearing on the shelves--hopefully at premiums that aren't too high--we can pitch in by lobbying governments and computer makers to focus on making computer production and recycling more green, as groups like Computer Take Back and As You Sow are doing. As Justin noted recently, when the European Union's RoHS directive goes into effect July 1st, all electronics sold in the EU must be free of lead, mercury, and other chemicals. Meanwhile, Washington state recently passed a law requiring computer manufacturers to pay for green recycling--joining Maine, California, and Maryland in enacting e-waste legislation, which is pending in 19 other states and New York City. For some more immediate satisfaction when your PC has loaded its last Treehugger page, you can recycle your desktop or laptop through programs like Dell's or Ebay's, or find an environmentally-friendly recycler with this this handy map (U.S. only).
See also John's recent review of Elizabeth Grossman's High Tech Trash, and for a sobering (yet strangely sublime) depiction of the sheer amount of e-waste being shipped to Asia from Europe and the U.S.--and another great example of garbage-as-art--check out Beijinger Xing Danwen's striking photographs.