What is in your laptop?

Toxic material, it turns out.

Hewlett-Packard hardly needs any more bad news in the aftermath of a board scandal involving amateur gum-shoe work which put “pretexting” into the mainstream lexicon. Now an article in Treehugger reports that Greenpeace has downgraded HP’s environmental credentials after finding the flame retardant decaBDE and lead in their laptops. And HP is by no means alone: none of the 5 laptops surveyed by the environmental advocacy group fared well. The full study compared Dell Lattitude, Acer Aspire, Sony VIAO,  HP Pavillion and MacBook Pro, searching for the presence of harmful chemicals such as lead, chromium, cadmium, mercury and bromime.

The impact of these chemicals could be more significant during production and after the lifetime of the actual product. Others have pointed at the subtle connection between environment and IT industry, not traditionally considered a major polluter. Andrew Shapiro of Harvard Law School for example has drawn attention to the growing incidence of discarded hardware from Western countries ending up in landfills of developing countries– the unlikeliest candidates for properly managing the disposal of toxic chemicals. Taking this argument one step further, Shapiro made the same case for software in a talk at MSFT research: efficient applications which can run on   existing hardare and not require upgrades (which would involve discarding existing hardware and adding to those growing piles) is more environmentally friendly than one that is hungry for CPU, memory or other computing resources.

Measuring the impact of software industry is a ways off. But Greenpeace has already stepped up to the plate to compare different vendors of hardware in a report card. According to that chart which rates companies on a scale of 0 to 10, Dell, Nokia and HP are leading the pack while Lenova is the worst offender. (No doubt pundits are commenting on whether exploding/burning batteries were taken into account.) Apple for all its image-conscious advertising and self-billing as the enlightened company, performs dismally, ranking in the bottom quartile. In all fairness, as Treehugger points out the Greenpeace study focuses exclusively on use of toxic chemicals to the exclusion of other ecological factors.


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