One laptop per child seems a simple slogan, chock full of benefit. What could go wrong when you put the power of the Internet and solar cells into the hands of children in the developing world? After all, not only does it train the global underclass in the tools of modern production, it also unleashes a creativity that may allow them to leapfrog the old, dirty, industrial development that has fouled the planet.
Unfortunately, those very laptops may end up doing that last thing. "What is the entire country of Uruguay going to do with all those laptops" at the end of their useful life, asked Jeff Omelchuck of the Green Electronics Council at the Greener Gadgets conference in New York City on February 25. "They are a very resource intensive product to make. Will there be recycling? Did we also extend the gift to put in a closed loop infrastructure?"
More than one million such laptops have already been distributed, from Kenya to Uruguay, according to Yves Behar, a designer at fuseproject. In fact, every child in Uruguay now has such a laptop and the program is expanding into high schools. And the designer has begun to work on the next iteration of the machine, one potentially sporting two screens, thin like an iPad, and made completely from plastic: dubbed the XO3.
Even the cheapest laptop has "more precious gems and metals than any Pope has had," noted Leonardo Bonanni, founder of Sourcemap.org, at the conference. His Web site allows users to track the constituents of any gadget, from a laptop to the carbon footprint of a bomb. "There is no excuse not to know where things come from and what they're made of, especially if you're buying them," he said.
In fact, our gadgets collectively contain much of the world's copper (there's a pound in most laptops), tin from artisanal miners and lithium, "so much that it could be called a bomb," Bonanni said. And then there's the really rare stuff like indium for screens and super-expensive rhodium for electrical contacts. All told modern electronics require 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured—and fuel the same kind of exploitative and annihilating resource-extraction that has been a hallmark of Western consumption since at least the ivory craze of Victorian England. "These materials don't really belong to us, they belong to humanity. We're just shepherding it from one place to another," Bonanni said.
That turns out to be a short process: typical cell phone users replace their phones every 18 months, contributing to a growing pile of electronic waste (e-waste). The U.S. alone produces roughly three million metric tons of the stuff each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). That e-waste is then often improperly incinerated or broken down in places like China or India, poisoning locals.
In fact, the amount of e-waste looks set to grow exponentially, according to UNEP, as cell phones, laptops and other gadgets proliferate in these same countries. Seven times more mobile phones are set to be hitting the junkyard by 2020 in China, 18 times more over the same span in India. Already, the world produces 50 million metric tons of e-waste a year.
"In addition to curbing health problems, boosting developing country e-waste recycling rates can have the potential to generate decent employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide range of valuable metals including silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium," said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, in a prepared statement on February 22 related to the release of a new report on e-waste. "By acting now and planning forward many countries can turn an e-challenge into an e-opportunity."
One way to address this mounting problem is to design out as much of these materials as possible. After all, "80 percent of the environmental footprint of a product is set by the design stage," noted Sarah Krasley, sustainability manager at software provider Autodesk. And new standards like EPEAT, which plans to launch a consumer system this year, force manufacturers to make products more recyclable and repairable, backed by the buying power of large consumers like the U.S. government.
"Recycling is not going to change the products but green design standards like EPEAT can," Omelchuck said. "If purchasers want it, the manufacturers will follow." Already, companies such as HP employ recycled plastics and a closed loop recycling system for printer ink cartridges, according to Maria Tate, a senior industrial designer for HP's printer division.
Ultimately, however, it may come down to something anathema to consumer electronics companies—making products that last, or as wind power kite scientist and serial inventor Saul Griffiths calls them, "heirloom" gadgets, which can be passed from one generation to the next. At the same time, these greener gadgets will have to embody the sleek, sexy design that currently drives consumer craving. And eliminate or replace the packaging that carries its own environmental cost, such as replacing the Styrofoam that cradles new gadgets with a biopolymer made from fungi-digesting seed husks.
Instead, designers seem focused on creating the next must-have gadget, no matter how many resources it might consume, like the hackable car Behar presented to the conference that can be reconfigured to fit a variety of needs and relies on open-source elements. Or creating apps that help users locate fresh, local food—the winner of this year's greener gadget contest—but are hosted on a device that relies on tungsten, tantalum and tin from resource war–ravaged Congo.
As for e-waste, there's an app for that, too: iRecycle, which finds the nearest spot to properly dispose of used electronics, at least in the U.S. But one little app telling you where to recycle used electronics doesn't compare to the environmental and human health costs of making the gadget to run it.
(Full disclosure: this post was written on an Apple laptop and relies on you to have a similar device to read it.)