Yesterday afternoon I spoke to Tod Arbogast, Dell’s Director of Sustainable Business. Our conversation turned to the issue of whether or not a culture which consumes PCs at the rate that we do can ever really be sustainable. In other words, as I put it to Tod – 100 years from now, how on earth are we going to continue manufacturing computers (just as an example) for all the billions of people who are going to be using them?
Tod’s answer was that we will reach a point where we can capture the materials from the old computers and recycle them to build new computers. He pointed out that the historical trend is for commodities to become more valuable over time, and eventually the recycled commodities will become very valuable as well, so valuable that everyone will recover the materials as efficiently as possible. Recycling won’t just be a goodwill gesture, it will be business-as-usual.
I certainly believe that recycling will be a big part of the answer, and I likewise applaud companies such as Dell that have make such a strong effort to promote recycling throughout their products’ life cycle (see here for more on that). But I think it’s more likely that, no matter how efficient our recycling becomes, we will still need to mine new materials to make new computers. I have yet to be convinced that we can truly close the loop.
Tod and I also talked about the idea of turning things like computers into (to quote a term coined by Dr. Saul Griffith at the recent Greener Gadgets conference) “heirloom products” – products meant to last decades rather than simply years. Tod pointed out that, while he’d love to make a computer that will last 50 years, the reality is that computers continue to get faster and more powerful. We often upgrade, not because our old computer broke, but because we can do more things with the new one.
He was also quick to point out that newer computers often consume less energy. A Dell desktop today, he said, consumes five times less energy than its counterpart five, ten years ago. Personally, I think that in the 100-years-from-now scenario, we won’t be making efficiency gains that will warrant mining more metals, ceramics and plastics (you don’t mine plastics, but you get the idea), but I concede that in 2009 the amount of energy saved could rival the amount of energy embodied.
So the question is – what do you think? Do you think we’re going to keep building computers and other electronic devices until we’ve tapped the Earth dry? Do you think that day will never come? Or do you think that, with proper incentives and careful planning we can build a recycling system that makes our consumption of stuff truly sustainable?
Image via Southeast Recycled Fiber
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