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While newer laptops contain less toxic chemicals and more recyclable materials, the growing amount of e-waste is becoming a problem.

Photograph by Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock

Environmental Impact

Electronic Waste

Up until recently, when it came to environmental impact, computers did not have the greatest track record. Each new generation of processors doubled speed, but consumed more energy. And software makers ballooned their programs with new features that would use up all this capacity. As a result, consumers tended to discard their old computers even though they were still operational. This was especially problematic since computers had more than their fair share of toxic chemicals, including lead in the batteries, brominated flame retardants (BRFs), and the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used for coating wires.

When incinerated, PVCs allegedly give off harmful dioxin. Lead, a neurotoxic, can leach into water supplies. And while the word is still out on the danger of BFRs, researchers are increasingly finding traces of the substance in the environment, including humans.

The recent influx of green thinking, however, has had a tremendous impact on computer makers. Computer processor manufacturers such as Intel have redesigned their processors to use less power. Computer makers themselves have cut back on the amount of toxic chemicals in the machines, with the understanding that such materials may eventually end up in landfills . The more conscientiousness companies have also used recycled materials. Some companies, such as Dell, even take back their used products free-of-charge, for recycling.

This year, analysts estimate that over 177 million laptops will be sold. Many of these are replacement computers, of course. The EPA estimated that 157 million computers were discarded in the U.S. in 2007. The majority of discarded products end up in landfills, or are shipped to other countries for the source materials. In either case, their raw materials can leach into the environment. According to the United Nations, about 20 to 50 million tons of electronic components are discarded each year, and laptops are becoming an increasing part of this refuse mixture.

Your computer's carbon footprint varies with the source of your electricity, be it from coal, natural gas or some other source. But using the most commonly used metric, 1.5 lbs per kilowatt hour, an 80-watt laptop will produce .12 pounds of carbon for each hour of use. (Generally speaking laptops themselves are green—they typically use only half the energy of a desktop computer and monitor.) All in all, such use is still light compared to other appliances. A 3,600-watt dishwasher, when run for an hour, will add 5.4 pounds of carbon into the air.

The U.S. government has put programs in place, Energy Star and EPEAT, to highlight the most energy-efficient computers. The Energy Star program estimates that if all computers sold in the United States were Energy Star compliant, the country would save $2 billion a year in energy costs.

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