The cost of computers on the environment

Dumped computers
Computers may be cheap, but the cost to the environment isn’t free. Photo: George Hotelling via Wikimedia Commons.

Few things are more harmful to the environment than computing, says computer expert Matt Bentley.

The amount of raw materials that need to be extracted from the earth in order to construct a small computer, is the size of a small car. So if we’re using then replacing these devices every three to four years, we’re actually having an awful impact on the planet. So what can you do?

To start with, throw out that old notion of ‘oh, it’s getting slow, I might as well replace it’. Ignoring the fact that transferring all your programs, data and settings to a new computer is a time-consuming and difficult process, the fact is that computers are not increasing in speed at the same rate as they were 20 years ago. In the 1990’s it was not uncommon for the processing speed of computers to double from year to year. Now you’re lucky if you get a 5-10% performance increase from year to year.

What that means is that the benefit of replacing a computer on the basis of speed is negligible, unless it’s more than eight years old. Of course, if something breaks in it that can’t be replaced, then of course you need to replace it. But the vast majority of the time some components can be replaced with better ones, and you may find the computer speeds up quite a bit as a result (for example, from putting in an SSD drive to replace your old hard drive).

The other result of the decrease in the acceleration of computer speed is that you might want to look at using better programs instead of replacing hardware. A lot of windows programs, particularly Microsoft’s ones, tend to be slower than other free, open-source solutions. For example, Media Player Classic is a much faster replacement for Microsoft’s own built-in media players. For any given piece of software, it’s guaranteed that there are at least four freeware programs that do the job better.

Next year Windows 7 gets made obsolete by Microsoft, who will stop issuing security patches for it, making it unsafe to use on the internet. So you might be tempted to chuck out that old computer and just get a new one with Windows 10 on it, but actually it’s relatively easy to upgrade Windows 7 to Windows 10 for free, despite the fact that the ‘official’ free-update period has passed. I’ve even updated a computer from 2001 from Windows 7 to Windows 10 without issue.

Lastly, rather than throwing the machine on the landfill if you do decide to replace it, consider donating it to a charity or giving it to one of the many computer recycling outfits in your area. In the best case, they will take the machine and re-purpose or on-sell it, and in the worst case, it will end up going to a metal recycler. Just google “IT recycling” and the name of your town in your web browser.

Computers may be cheap, but the cost to the environment isn’t free. Choose wisely, buy sensibly, dispose of responsibly.


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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

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