One hundred years ago, America fell in love with a machine.
The big crush began with Henry Ford's Model T, and for generations it seemed our four-wheeled friends could do no wrong.
Though cars sometimes repaid our love with a deathly crush of their own, as when they veered off the road or slammed into an oncoming vehicle, we learned to forgive these transgressions. But the honeymoon ended when we realized that automobiles were slowly destroying our planet.
So the focus of our affections shifted. We refashioned our society around another machine: the computer. Lately, I've begun to wonder whether we may someday perceive computers as a major climate threat. That's the question I put to Engineering junior Arjun Gopalratnam, co-president of CommuniTech, a student outreach group that aims to bridge the digital divide. "It's hard to guess that far in the future," he responded cautiously. "We had cars for 50 [to] 80 years before we saw a problem with them. I'm not sure what will happen with computers."
It's a problem that our computing today isn't environmentally responsible. Forget the electricity computers devour. Even while powered off, they represent a great burden on the environment, considering all the harmful materials that go into them.
Indeed, the computer is a cocktail of toxins such as arsenic, lead, PVC and mercury - chemicals that leach into soils. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a mere 18 percent of end-of-life computers found their way to recycling facilities in 2007. The rest - nearly 157.3 million units - waste away in landfills. That's where CommuniTech plays a vital role. By refurbishing computers for reuse in communities from West Philly to Ghana, they're employing a global strategy - one that unites social justice with environmental stewardship.
And there's good news on the recycling end. Mark Aseltine, executive director of ISC Technology Support Services, said in an e-mail that "there are fewer challenges than there used to be, in large part because there are a number of good programs for donation, recycling and environmentally responsible disposal."
Dealing with e-waste is a challenge for an institution like Penn - with its mass of electronic castoffs. The most convenient solution turns out to be relying on the manufacturer, said Dan Garofalo, the University's sustainability coordinator. Many manufacturers now offer free recycling with the purchase of a new computer.
As critical as these efforts are, the best strategy for dealing with e-waste remains on the purchasing side. That's because consumer decisions inevitably return to haunt us, and a good choice today will make recycling that much easier down the road. Sure, we all want the newest technology at the cheapest price, but the environment should be a priority.
Thankfully, the green revolution has begun to work its magic in the computer industry. Just this month Apple released what it touts as "the greenest MacBook ever." In redesigning their flagship notebook, Apple has eliminated many toxins while improving packaging efficiency and end-of-life recyclability.
Still, as consumers we need to keep an eye out for green washing - the practice of promoting any product as "green" regardless of its actual environmental impact. "A lot of the suppliers are still putting together their own definition of green," observed JoAnn Murphy, director of Purchasing Services. "We don't necessarily take it at face value."
Sure enough, if you look beneath Apple's hype, you'll see a different picture. According to its Web site, the MacBook will generate 460 kg of carbon dioxide over an average four-year period. Sixty percent of that amount is emitted before you even open the box because of production and transportation. Clearly, we have a long way to go in developing computers that will support life on this planet, rather than hinder it.
By purchasing computers that meet higher standards, you can help steer the industry in the right direction.
After all, manufacturers are in the business of pleasing customers, and they'll bend over backward to engineer a green machine if they think it'll translate into business.
Every dollar in your hand is a slice of the power pie. Don't let that influence go to waste - or should I say, e-waste?
Callum Makkai is a 2nd year doctoral student in the School of Arts and Sciences, from Halifax, Canada. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Moment of Clarity appears on alternating Thursdays.