Prices of computers keep falling – a new desktop computer may only set you back €350. However, I was shocked to learn the finding of a 2004 UN study that 1.8 tons of material is used to manufacture a desktop PC and monitor – 1,500 kg of water, 240kg of fossil fuels and 22kg of chemicals. The best way to minimise impact on the environment from a personal computer is to extend its useful life.

The debate on climate change is unanimous. We must reduce emissions to avoid environmental catastrophe. That means manufacturing computers with longer life cycles that use less raw material resources. It means developing computers that can be easily made more energy efficient through upgrade of existing hardware rather than replacement. It means prioritising reuse of retired computers in schools and colleges before recycling them. It requires a transformation in our consumption attitudes to consider the environmental impact at the point of purchase and disposal.

Understanding the environmental impact of what we buy would help consumers make more informed choices and would also be likely to drive some manufacturers to compete on the basis of environmental footprint metrics. To date, computer manufacturers have unsurprisingly not taken the social initiative to publish this product information at point of sale as I assume it would ultimately reduce sales. Unfortunately, there has been no update of the 2004 UN study. So this environmental impact information is ‘off the radar’ of any consumer buying a computer.

It is high time to mandate manufacturers to declare the environmental impact of their products in transparent and easy to understand terms at the point of sale. We need the implementation of an EU environmental directive to mandate manufacturers to provide environmental impact information at point of sale. Ireland can provide genuine green leadership to drive for this change. John Gormley as Environment minister has an excellent opportunity to present the case in the Copenhagen climate change talks.

In the case of computers, it would also help to raise awareness amongst consumers of the need of to focus on reuse prior to recycling. We recycle approximately 250,000 computers in Ireland each year and most of these could be reused in schools and colleges. This creative reuse of Information Communications Technology(ICT) in the severest global downturn since 1930 could help address the shortfall in meeting the educational needs of our children and those in even greater need in developing countries.

Mark Fox
Social Hardware Manager