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Sierra Magazine
The Hidden Life of Computers

by B.J. Bergman

Everyone's heard of the Y2K crisis, which may or may not bring trains and ATM transactions to a screeching halt at the crack of the new millennium. When the crisis has come and gone, however, the chronic, commonplace impacts of computers will still be with us, lingering like ghost images on an antique monitor. From their manufacture through their useful lives and beyond, computers take a heavy toll on that other worldwide web, the natural environment.

Despite the industry's antiseptic image, making computers is like making sausage, only more toxic and less sustainable. It takes an estimated 700 chemical compounds to build a computer, about half of them hazardous. That's largely why Santa Clara County, California's cradle of high-tech, has over 150 groundwater contamination sites and more Superfund sites than any other county in the nation. Growing demand for computers, of course, begets new cradles: besides Silicon Valley, the current list includes Arizona's Silicon Desert, Texas' Silicon Hills, New Mexico's Silicon Mesa, Scotland's Silicon Glen, and Boston's modestly named Route 128. As if polluting our water weren't enough, the industry also siphons off huge amounts of it. Producing the chips for one personal computer consumes 2,800 gallons of water. Some fabrication plants, or "fabs," guzzle 5 million gallons a day.

Users bear some of the blame for the PC's destructive impacts, too. According to John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning, coauthors of Stuff, one in three computers in the United States-which will soon boast more than 150 million PCs-are left on overnight and on weekends. (Contrary to popular belief, they add, turning your computer off when not in use can prolong its life by cutting down on heat generation and mechanical stress, "the two leading causes of personal-computer failure.")

Steven Anzovin, author of The Green PC, has calculated that PCs devoured over 330 billion kilowatt hours of electrical energy in 1997, "enough to keep California's 11 million households running for more than three years." The computer revolution's promise to bring us "the paperless office" has proved a bust, too. Americans now use twice as much printing and writing paper as they did three decades ago, when high-tech meant an electric typewriter. From 1986 to 1997, domestic production of computer and copier paper rose by a third.

Besides the waste generated by manufacturing, many of the world's 400 million PCs-each "about 55 pounds of plastics, metals, glass, and silicon," note Ryan and Durning-will end up as solid waste themselves, beginning with their printers' recyclable toner cartridges. Some 20 million computers are put out to pasture every year, usually after less than three years on the job; one in six end up in landfills. In Massachusetts alone, discarded computers and TVs account for an estimated 75,000 tons of waste a year, a total that could quadruple by 2006. Starting this fall, it will be illegal to dump computers and cathode-ray tubes into the state's landfills.

Meanwhile, there's no need to trade in your PC for an abacus. But do shut it off (or at least your screen) when it's idle, and use paper (recycled, of course) sparingly. Recycle your toner cartridges and unwanted hardware; check the Yellow Pages for local buyers. If you're in the market for a new machine, look for a model with the EPA's Energy Star logo-and don't override its energy-efficiency features with a needless "screen saver." Finally, push the industry to switch to less environmentally damaging ways of manufacturing computers and chips. Like that little Y2K bug, it's about time.


For more information on the EPA's Energy Star programs, visit http://www.energystar.gov/. To help clean up the computer industry, check out the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's Clean Computer Campaign at www.svtc.org.

B. J. Bergman is Sierra's writer/editor


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