First it was the fridge mountain, then it was the tyre mountain. Now discarded computers have got environmentalists worried.
According to a study released yesterday, our relentless appetite for buying new computers -- and the ease with which we throw out old ones -- is having a major impact on the environment. Instead of dumping our old computers after a few years, we should be using them for longer, or selling them secondhand to reduce demand for new ones, the authors say.
Scientists at the UN university in Tokyo estimate that to make a new computer requires at least 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals. The manufacture of one computer consumes 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of chemicals and 1,500kg of water.
Car manufacturing is far less energy-intensive, says the study, with each vehicle requiring at most twice its weight in fossil fuels.
Computers have found their way into nearly every home and office, yet sales keep soaring. In 2002, the number of personal computers in the world topped a billion and sales continue to rise at around 130 million a year.
"It's hard to imagine life without one of these indispensable 21st-century tools, but it is exactly because they have become so ubiquitous that we must be aware of the negative impacts of the PC boom," said Eric Williams, an expert in the environmental impact of technology and co-author of the study.
The study criticizes governments for concentrating on recycling instead of introducing measures to reduce the numbers of new computers people buy, or encouraging them to buy secondhand machines.
"It's more effective to try to reduce and re-use things first and then worry about recycling," Williams said.
The study calls for governments to introduce tax breaks for people buying used computers instead of new ones.
European legislation demands that when computers are finally taken to the tip, 70 percent of the materials used to make them is recycled. Copper, gold and silver can all be recovered from discarded computers. But tonnes of old PCs are still shipped to developing countries for recycling, where the processes used -- such as baths of acid to strip metals from circuit boards -- can be environmentally damaging.
The study also calls on computer manufacturers to help extend the useful lifetime of their machines by making them easier to upgrade, so instead of having to completely replace them, people can simply buy new parts.
But, as Andrew Blazer, who studies environmental impact at Imperial College, London, points out, companies will only change their practices if there is something in it for them.
"It's all very well for the UN to bleat, but business will only change if there's an incentive," he said.
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