Object of Concern: Computers
Technology can be both a tool for creation and a tool for destruction. Like any tool it depends on how you use it. Unfortunately for computers we have been throwing them away in other people’s backyards and ignoring the environmental cost of computers. Computers have come a long way in people’s lives from being mere calculators to tools that have the world’s information in the palms of our hands. How we deal with waste management is one of the biggest problems facing e-waste. We need to be able to use these machines sustainably.
Originally computers were sought after for as a way to do mathematics. Some of the first “calculators” were in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries known as trigonometric tables. Many of these tables were used in applications such as navigational tables, engineering tables, life insurance tables, and so on. A man named Gaspard de Prony was a mathematician who worked on these math tables and decided to gather other men to work with him to create them mass scale. He decided to divide up the work in specialized tasks after reading Adam Smith’s the wealth of Nations. Charles Babbage another 18th century mathematician saw problems with the tables and saw it mainly due to labor. By 1833 he made his difference engine which is still on display in London’s Science Museum. Babbage then came to light of the idea of a machine which would do large scale information processing. Babbage was intrigued by the large scale information processing of the clearing houses of the 1800s. Then came the introduction of the telegraph which began as a solution to the problems of the early railroads.
The early U.S. also had large information processing problems one of which was the tedious tasks of census clerks. A man by the name of Herman Hollerith developed a mechanical system for data processing and created the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896 (Computer: A history of the information machine 2004). Many office machines were also important to the development of information processing such as the typewriter, record keeping systems, and adding machines. America was right on top of the technology industry as it quickly integrated comptometers into their office work. It was also one of the first in the world to adopt this technology on a wide scale. There were four office machine suppliers that topped the market and these were Remington Rand, National Cash Register, the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, and IBM. Many of the tasks assigned to these machines were that of creating documents, creating databases for information, and accounting. One of the first successful typewriters by Remington still has an impact on us today that use on our keyboards and that is the QWERTY arrangement. One of these companies IBM is still around and makes computer parts today.
In 1939, the Model K and the Z2 computer provide proof of concept for the beginning of computers. Another Company to Emerge in 1940 after that time was Hewlett Packard which made the HP 200A Audio Oscillator and they are still around today making computers. Another competing company Bell Telephone makes a complex number calculator that is credited to Stibitz. Another early computer was created in Germany and was called the Z3 but it was destroyed in the war. It could tackle arithmetic and aerodynamic calculations. Many other computer like devices were created during WWII such as the Colossus, the M-9 gun director, the British Bombe, and the Curta calculator. The Harvard Mark 1 built by IBM was a room sized computer that basically made math tables. After that in 1948 the first computer to have random access memory also known as RAM were built, known famously as the Williams Tube. Similarly large computers were made such as the ENIAC that weighed 30 tons. It is quite a difference to the computers that we can hold in our hands today. Another computer built by Remington Rand was the Era 1101 which was one of the first commercially produced and sold to the US Navy.
It’s not until 1966 that we get computers that can fit a small space. The HP 2116A was HP’s first computer(computer history museum). In 1968 the first mini-computer was made by Nova and it cost $8,000 dollars. The first commercially advertised computer with a microprocessor was the Scelbi in 1974. The Xerox PARC Alto was something that actually resembles something we have today that had a mouse and a keyboard. This is where Mac first got their inspiration from. In 1977 apple makes their first successful computer called the Apple II. In 1981 IBM introduces its first computer called the IBM PC and popularizes the name PC which refers to personal computers. Increasing computers get smaller, better, and faster.
One of the problems with computers is that “the PC requires 10 times the weight in chemicals and fossil fuels”(BBC 2004). The short lifetimes of computers and the consumer culture leads people to buy computers every few years instead of taking care of their computers and upgrading them. Instead of using less energy to create computers today we also are trending towards using more energy. When compared to manufacturing cars and refrigerators, computers take the cake in fossil fuel usage for production. Some of the more hazardous wastes that computers release into the environment are lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium, selenium, and cobalt. Unfortunately there is not a lot of research on the environmental impacts of the computers but we do know some of the effects of some of their byproducts.
Some of the problems with why computers are creating so much waste and energy usage is because they are left on overnight and draining energy. Because of consumer culture people tend to buy new products instead of fixing their old machines. It could go a long way to fix something on the computer instead of throwing it away. People also have a lack of resources in where to dump computer waste. Since there is a lack of places to deposit e-waste many developing countries get the waste dumped on them and are forced to deal with the environmental problems associated with it. Companies that take your recycled material are also not being honest about where they put their electronics and many times they end up overseas. This often happens because the labor required to remove the valuable material from the computer is often tedious so this labor is placed among the third world. China has even started to refuse taking waste since they don’t know what to do with all of it. Some of this recycling is being done by certified recyclers but the problem comes with the cost. It has been proposed to burn waste but countries are leaning away from that since that has its own harmful byproducts.
The problem with computer waste for starters is that we actually don’t have that much information on it to begin with. To even understand the impact of computers we need to evaluate the impacts of these machines. Some studies have focused on the problem in India. The average use of a computer is around 2-5 years for both domestic and commercial use of computers. The cost of recycling a computer comes to be a problem when it is no longer usable to another computer user. It can end up in a landfill or be reused. In order to tackle this problem it would be necessary to recycle the material even when it is no longer economically feasible to do so. Some ideas in order to tackle this problem is the life cycle analysis and to apply it to products like computers so that it can be better tackled with a cheaper cost. The ideal way of solving through the life cycle analysis approach has not been concluded yet.
Policymakers in other countries have tried take back and treatment systems to help e-waste. Some of this is handled by retail stores, others by commercial pick up, and some by local municipalities. In the EU 40% of e-waste is handled this way (UNU 2014). The problem can be that some e-waste ends up in trash cans and is processed with the other trash in the landfill. With take back systems private companies take what can be used and sell it on a second hand market. The country that does this has to enable the reselling of used goods. Another way in which computers can be recycled with e-waste are from imports of waste from other countries. These imported items can be sold to be used in a second hand market or to the recycling compounds. Sometimes self-employed entrepreneurs use this opportunity. Many of the materials from computers can be recycled and are valuable to be sold on the market. Some of these include copper, iron, aluminum, and sometimes precious metals.
In conclusion we need to better take care of our resources. I tackled both looking through computer waste in the political economy lense and the risks and hazards lense. It seems that market approaches to the answer will not suffice in that they will cost more to get the resources than it would sell on the market. Integrating these problems into the businesses that sell these products might be an answer to the problem in reducing some of the costs associated with getting these materials. However this could also increase the price of goods that are sold by those business. Solutions like adding costs to businesses fail like when Australia had a carbon tax. It hurt the economy and it was quickly taken out. If we want to help the environment then we cannot let our policies be removed. It would probably be best to incorporate both government and market solutions simultaneously to have the best results. Government solutions have yet to reach computers because they are not one of the big polluters. Computers along with other products probably will not be looked at until we first tackle energy solutions and carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The problem can also be that in order to fund these programs money must come from somewhere and we must tax citizens. Most people will not like more taxes so it is best to find a viable economic solution to this problem. Letting people recycle their own products and being environmentally friendly is not enough since many people are not skilled in taking apart many of these devices. Some of the problems that I see with e-waste are some of the same problems I see at the University. We need a separate organization that goes through the trash. Even with properly labeled waste bins some trash still ends up in trash or worse it ends up in the wrong bin and creates problems for the people who want to recycle the material. If we created an organization that sorts the trash then we would not have the problem of trash ending up in the landfills.
Campbell-Kelly, M., Aspray, W., & American Council of Learned Societies. (2004). Computer: A history of the information machine (2nd ed., Sloan technology series). Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
“Computers | Timeline of Computer History.” Computer History Museum, www.computerhistory.org/timeline/computers/#169ebbe2ad45559efbc6eb3572083fb7.
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UNU. “Global E-Waste Volume Hits New Peak in 2014: UNU Report.” United Nations University, unu.edu/news/news/ewaste-2014-unu-report.html.