What Makes a Computer Green?

guy in suit melting aluminum

There are lots of things more important than whether it's made of recycled aluminum.

Back in 2012, after years of building my own computers or buying cheap notebooks, I considered getting a more expensive MacBook Pro and asked architect and writer Steve Mouzon for his advice. He said, "Get the top of the line unit, buy AppleCare for 3 years, and assume that you will replace the computer when the AppleCare is up."

Now, in the autumn of 2018, that computer is still plugging away. I looked forward to the recent Apple announcements of the new MacBook Air, thinking it might finally be time to replace the 2012 machine, but there was nothing there that made me want to upgrade.

When I asked Carl Zimring what he thought of the new computers (he is an expert on aluminum and recycling), he complained about planned obsolescence. But I have gone through a number of software upgrades from Mountain Lion to Mojave and it's not obsolete yet. Professor Zimring has been a big influence on my thinking, but I think that at least when it comes to computers, things have changed. This is why I thought the extended applause for the MacBook Air being made from pre-consumer waste was silly; there is so much that is more important than recycling when it comes to computers. That's why it's time to look again at the 7Rs, many of which apply to computers, including:

in the box

What's in the box/ Macbook Air/Screen capture

Reduce: That's what I liked most about the new MacBook, it is actually engineered to use less material. It is thinner and lighter, which is the way we should be going. It also uses a lot less electricity; it's not just bigger or better batteries, but they keep designing chips and displays to use less power. My Macbook Pro has an 85 Watt power adapter; the new Macbook comes with a 30 Watt adapter. My last desktop had a 350 Watt power supply. This is a huge reduction.

Repair: Apple computers are notoriously bad for this, but hey, as long as your AppleCare is still working, it is their problem, not yours. But batteries can be replaced and solid state drives seem to go forever.

notebook with Ipad

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Repurpose: I used my old iPad as a second screen, thanks to Duet Software, long after its useful life as an iPad.

Reuse: Computers can be handed down; my last notebook got years of use as a basic email and Skype unit for a friend.

Return: More and more vendors are taking computers back, cleaning them up and reselling them. Apple gave me a reasonable amount of money for my last iPhone.

Refill (good for bottles, not hard drives) and Rot (composting) don't really apply (and I am somehow ending up with 8Rs), but probably the most important R is to –

Refuse: We don't have to fall for the hype of the new. My current iPhone 7 has more than enough memory and a good enough camera that I do not see any reason to upgrade. According to Sarah Krouse in the Wall Street Journal, more and more people are doing that.

“Once you’ve paid the phone off, you realize that you’re getting a considerable sum knocked off your bill every month. When you get a new phone you lose that financial advantage,” said Jeffrey Moore, a telecom-industry analyst and principal of Wave7 Research. Smartphones are also less differentiated today, he said, making some consumers less eager to upgrade.

The new features on phones and computers are not coming as fast as they used to; they are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. So it is easier to refuse.

Recycling is important. Recycling of aluminum is really important if we want to get to a circular economy and eliminate virgin aluminum production.

But it is not the first or most important priority. The fact that every TreeHugger writer I talked to is still cranking away on 2011 through 2015 Mac notebooks tells a bigger story.

And while we are at it, here is TreeHugger Emeritus Margaret's video on rethinking recycling: