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Can Computers Be Truly Sustainable?

Yesterday afternoon I spoke to Tod Arbogast, Dell’s Director of Sustainable Business. Our conversation turned to the buy levitra online canada 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 real cialis 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 only for you viagra 10 mg 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 pharmacy no prescripition tramadol capsules 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 lowest price for levitra 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 best viagra price stuff truly sustainable?

Image via Southeast Recycled Fiber

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Comments (20)Add Comment
100 years from now...
written by Kyle, April 01, 2009
Thank you for the thinly disguised advertisements for Dell and Southeast Recyled Fiber.

As for the question. It is totally bullshit. In 100 years from now, computers will be unrecognisable in construction and most likely will use organic compounds which are 'grown' through biological processes.

The Dell comment about today's computers using five times less energy than their counterparts five to ten years ago is not very true at all and levitra 50 mg in fact quite dishonest. It is true that due to recommended site best way to use viagra decreasing size of the individual silicon gates, each gate's power consumption is less, however the complexity has increased so over-all there is a net increase in power. Ten years ago, most desktop PCs had 250-300watt rated power supplies, today the average desktop PC has a power supply rated at 400-600watts.
To Compute
written by Lucas Jordan, April 01, 2009
A friend of buy cheap generic levitra mine asked me if I though computers were environmental. I had to confess that even the fancy mac laptop I was using was disposable, so probably no. But it also seems unlikely that that an efficient economy with 6 billion people could happen without computers of some sort, to manage resources.

Maybe only elliptically related to the article, but it does seem like computing is 'good', even if computers are 'bad.'

Surprisingly simple: the rebirth of the
written by Twist9, April 01, 2009
I honestly believe that soon someone in the industry is going to realize how foolish the entire idea of the Personal Desk-top computer is. In the beginning of digital computing there was a far more viable and sustainable model: the mainframe. We (mainly Americans) have been operating under the we recommend levitra where to buy strange delusion that in order to use a computer it must be OUR computer, and not just our keyboard and screen and profile, but our physical computer. The power levels of supercomputers have reached the point at which a single super-computer could handle the vast majority of i recommend cialis online 50mg computing tasks (internet access, document revision, image processing) for an entire small city, and as networking technologies and infrastructure worldwide have boomed (the US is a bit behind on this one) it is become more and more viable to outsource the physical computing to an external core computer. Much like we currently access the internet for a subscription fee, our computing could operate on a fee-for-service model (paying for processor speeds and memory usage monthly). The individual consumer would then only be responsible for purchasing and upgrading the audio/visual components of the system which can be used viably for a much longer period and cause less environmental stress. In the shorter term large buildings such as apartment buildings and offices could invest in larger terminal-based computing systems. These systems eliminate the need to replace the canadian cialis with 2 free viagra "packaging" parts of the computer and can be upgraded for a much longer period before becoming obsolete.
Unlimited energy+miniaturization+recycli
written by Fred, April 02, 2009
More energy than we can ever use comes from the sun every day; we'll learn to harness it soon. My first 128k 'Baby' Mac weighed 20lbs; I guess my iPhone 3G is about six ounces, and it does much, much more. I don't expect that progression to stop. And I don't think the human race is ever going to run out of sand and steel.

We'll come up with a way to make all the digital switches optical, to where a zillion will fit on the head of a pin, and my big screen will be soon be a mere projection on the wall or become a tiny eyepiece "heads-up display" - or something. And my solar baseball cap will power it.

The main point to remember is this - we began the process of decarbonizing our economy several centuries ago, without any government direction or intervention, and we'll continue to do so, as fast as it's economically possible to do so.

Likewise, we've been squeezing much more performance and efficiency from all kinds of materials, and every new technology adds to those gains - that won't stop either, if we each have the freedom to continue experimenting.

Free people in free markets have made all this possible. The whole world benefits when all the people like Steve Jobs and Dean Kamen and Gordon Murray are free to keep dreaming and inventing - and helping us grow comfy and healthy and rich.

We just need to make sure we don't 'kill the goose that lays the golden eggs', in our haste to best price levitra spread the cheap online tramadol wealth around.

End of sermon.
written by Magnulus, April 02, 2009
To Kyle:
Ten years ago, computers were not nearly as good at power saving as they are today. Most of the time, we're not using NEARLY all of those 400 watts. The max amount of watts may have increased, but so has the difference between idle and full power.
written by russ, April 02, 2009
To Magnulus:
Kyle was correct. We may have learned how to make a computer power down more efficiently but when they operate they do suck more juice.

To Twist9:
Do you really prefer to leave all your data, photos etc on a mainframe for big brother to baby sit?
We're already there, partly
written by Brad, April 02, 2009
The aluminum in Dell's new Adamo, HP's new Envy, and the entire Apple product line will be recovered and reformed into new, more efficient electronic products when those computers are no longer useful. And that will happen with a tiny fraction of the energy used to make the aluminum from scratch.

By aluminum industry measurements (disclaimer: I work for Alcoa) something like 75% of the aluminum ever made, since 1888, is still around, doing useful work in all kinds of things. This is because it is a high-value material, both in terms of the money (energy) used to make it from scratch and in terms of the value it adds to electronic gear -- thermal properties, durability, portability, eye appeal, etc. Plus the ease with which you can recycle it.

So with that kind of value, aluminum gets recycled, naturally. Even beverage cans get recycled, as much as 90% in countries like Japan and cialis express delivery Brazil. In the US, not so much, but that's another topic.
To russ
written by Twist9, April 02, 2009
I already do, it's called internet hosting, something tells me you do it too, or have you never purchased anything online? If you would trust your credit card to the internet why not your other data? If you trust Encryption for one important thing then why not others?

(also thousands of people do it already with "remote desktop" hosting, and they don't seem to have too many problems with peeking eyes)
The possibility of viagra lowest prices less energy
written by Carl, April 02, 2009
Since the first computers, it's been true that after a while the price of a new computer is less than the viagra online us electric bill for an old one. Certain new laptops can pay for themselves in reduced power bills in some cases. However, the typical energy cost of a new computer is never disclosed, so consumers don't choose "greenness" by reduced CO2 emissions and energy cost. I believe we could reduce computer energy cost by 10-100 with simple techniques (e.g. the processor could power down when idle), if only manufacturers were forced to cialis soft tabs quick delivery disclose energy usage like a refrigerator or car.

Unfortunately, we don't measure the energy cost of software and bad web site design. New bloatware (100X larger 10X slower) and bad web site design (web stunts 100X slower) is a major cause of computer obsolescence.
written by russ, April 02, 2009

Anytime I buy anything on line it is with a 'one time' ecard. I do use cards at merchants in person though which I guess is not too different.

Being an old guy I much prefer to control my own destiny. I am not a fan of centralization at all.

Depending on where data is stored makes a difference as well. Having worked there for 15 years I know very well that there are no secrets in India.

Anytime you sat in a meeting to discuss a competitor you had their internal documents in front of you. Why guess when it is not necessary.
written by EV, April 02, 2009
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.

Told you so (Again).

Re: Twist9, russ
It is not necessary for a mainframe to exist outside the home. It is at the point where a household could have a 'mainframe' in the basement (probably about as large as a microwave) and the house could have terminals throughout the house. It may even be possible to have them wireless at some point (I know the difficulties, I merely say possible). This would allow for both the mainframe to come back and for privacy to be maintained.

One thing I notice is EcoGeek always forgets non-earth sources of materials. If we moved one of several known nickle-iron asteroids into orbit, we would have access to more iron that has been mined in the past 2,000 years and could stop mining for iron. The same thing applies to other elements. Getting it down to the surface of the earth safely, that is another mater.
written by Paul, April 03, 2009
What you say is totally laughable - "The price of a new computer is less than the electric bill for the old one". With morons like you on this planet we have a lot to buy levitra online uk worry about.
written by Twist9, April 04, 2009
EV: Also, do you have any idea how much energy it would take to move any significant amount of Lithium from an asteroid to earth? The reason rockets aren't launched into space every day is that each launch costs millions of dollars simply to construct and check the physical gear involved, not to mention logistics costs. In order for such a thing to be attempted you would have to carry your fuel with you along with everything else, almost doubling the ordering viagra online from canada initial launch weight, and therefor cost, of the vehicle. But then again you didn't say you wanted to mine on the asteroid, you said you actually wanted to move the entire D!@# thing into orbit! Are you serious??? Do you have any idea how precise the calculations have to be just to avoid hitting one with a probe? To attempt to relocate one anywhere near earth's orbit would be a planetary death wish.

The reason Ecogeek does not mention extra-terrestrial resources is that they are COMPLETELY infeasible to even think about harvesting within a thousand years. If you haven't noticed, Ecogeek focuses on current events and progress, not sci-fi speculation.
written by Russ, April 04, 2009
I feel that Dell and other companies will always put profit ahead of sustainability (unfortunately), so we need to ensure that recycling and buy cialis cheap being green is profitable through incentives and regulation
What do we save by using the computers.
written by Tom, April 04, 2009
The computers we use today at home is mostly used to entertain, so to see the complete picture we need to calculate what we save by not going to our car and driving to a theatre, movies, stripclub or whatever. Also how much gas has working from home on our computers saved the planet for? Not going on a plane to tokyo for that meeting because we did it through a computer with webcam, and so on.
So instead of focusing on the tiny bit of how much power does it take to run them, we should also look at how much power we did not have to use because we did not go anywhere to do what we wanted to do.
I have full faith in the future, as I see it, for every windmill and every solarcell comming out of a factory somewhere in the world, there will be need for less and less of the fossile fuel/coal that clogs our air today, so lets keep building more and more of buy levitra online cheap those please, yes it will take time to replace it all, but we will get there if we want to.
By the way, I still use my 10 year old keyboard, why replace it, it still works, so some parts of computers can actually last for a long time, the real sinners here is the laptops, not upgradable, not repairable and so on, lets get more of the desktop ( under desk cabinet ) style computers, where you can replace small parts when newer ones come to market ( less transport, less weight, less materials used, less packeting )
So its a much more complicated formula than just how much power does my computer use....

written by EV, April 04, 2009
Everything is Science Fiction until it happens. For instance, feasible solar panels were Sci-Fi 60 years.

The calculations are trivial, especially when dealing with a slow moving rock and when you can take your time. The problem with bringing things down to the surface of the earth is much easier than getting them out of earth's gravity well. Nor would it be a planetary death wish. We would not have to bring it immediately into LEO, we could start with the Lagrange Points and slowly move it down from there. A Space Elevator, which is probably 50 years off at most, would vastly reduce the very good site viagra canadian pharmacy energy required to bring the material down from orbit. From there, it is probably 5 years at most until we start mining the asteroids.

“Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”
written by Yvelle, April 06, 2009
Perhaps in the future computers and their packaging will be 100% recyclable or organic.
written by dixza, April 09, 2009
Perhaps we'll be using our brains more like a supercomputer! And the fungi ecosystem as the internet!

As long as we still mine and cheap generic viagra deals extract resources from the crust of the earth there is an impact on the environment thus can not be called sustainable.

The XPrice founder was already talking about platinum space hunting last year! if you add that to the iron, nickel,etc hunt that will be economically feasible!

What is the biggest environmental impact of computers?
Which parts ca we substitute with benign materials?
Can we use nature to absorb current solar energy to grow and shape the materials we need?

Somebody said to "spread the wealth around" At the end of the day what is wealth? May be we already have it but we impoverish our selves:8?

I wish you all Peace, Love and Light, what else do we need? :D ahhahai

written by Fred, July 22, 2009
i can be if done properly
written by computer recycling and disposal, November 23, 2010
This is a multi-faceted problem but if you are taking about a 100 year timespan then I believe there are some very clear-cut solutions. In that timespan we have sufficient time to start mining the lunar regolith for helium-3 as a fuelsource (there is enough fuel there to replace our current fossil fuel consumption for the next 3000 years). Fossil fuels on Earth can be diverted to plastics manufacture as can some organic production (effectively taking co2 out of the atomosphere via plants that are used for the production of plastics).

Alongside this switch to alternative fuel sources (of which Helium 3 is just one) there should a major overhaul in material usage. Materials can be constructed with longer lifetimes and more durable qualities (eg. nanotubes, diamond surfaces and advanced composite materials with nanotechnology surface properties).

Finally advances in bio-engineering may yield self-assembling structures (not exactly a new idea, all lifeforms are one such example). Self assembly would dramatically reduce the inefficiencies involved in the manufacturing process.

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