In 2009, worldwide laptop sales are expected to surpass desktop sales for the first time-reaching more than 150 million. Most people will keep a laptop for just three years or so before shelving it or tossing it onto a junk heap. Here’s how designers plan to make this ubiquitous gadget more eco-friendly across its entire life span, from manufacture to recycling.
PROBLEM: Petroleum-filled plastic SOLUTION: Make cases from corn New bioplastics-plant-based polymers-require less oil and energy to produce than traditional plastics. One challenge: upping heat resistance so electronics won’t melt them. Fujitsu makes a laptop with a half-natural, half-conventional case and is now testing a castor-oil plastic that’s up to 80 percent bio-content.
PROBLEM: Landing in landfills SOLUTION: Upgrade, don’t trash The EPA estimates that Americans discard 19,000 tons of laptops a year. But soon it may get easier (and cheaper) to upgrade your laptop than to replace it, keeping e-waste out of dumps and saving the energy and materials needed for a whole new computer. Laptop-maker Asus recently released a model that lets users change the processor, graphics card and other parts just by removing one panel, instead of spending hours disassembling the computer.
PROBLEM: Power-sucking displays SOLUTION: Create greener light An LCD can eat more than half of a laptop’s power, mostly due to its fluorescent backlight. Some laptops are lit with more-efficient LEDs instead, but the next step may be to nix backlights altogether. Displays made of OLEDs, or organic light-emitting diodes, form images with electroluminescent films. In small sizes, as in cellphones, OLEDs can significantly cut power use (depending on the image’s colors); companies hope that this advantage will scale up.
PROBLEM: Guzzling power from the grid SOLUTION: Harness the sun Portable solar chargers suited for laptops already exist. A company called MSI Computer has even developed a prototype laptop with photovoltaic cells integrated directly into its case.
PROBLEM: Toxic waste SOLUTION: Get the lead out Concerned that dumped gadgets could leak poisons, the law is cracking down on dangerous ingredients. (The lead in solder, for example, is now being replaced by silver and copper.) Last year, the European Union enacted legal limits on toxins in electronics sold there, and the U.S. introduced a similar (though voluntary) rating system for computers. President Bush recently mandated that 95 percent of government-purchased electronics meet the American eco-standards, eliminating about 3,000 tons of hazardous waste by 2011.
PROBLEM: Tricky recycling SOLUTION: Make a digital parts list Recycling computers can be expensive and time-consuming. Dismantlers usually pull out valuable parts for reuse or resale, but they have to examine each computer individually to determine what’s in it. If manufacturers add a radio-frequency ID tag to a laptop, says Valerie Thomas of Georgia Tech, it could instantly tell recyclers how to recover components.
PROBLEM: That spinning hard drive SOLUTION: Switch to flash memory Future laptops could knock 10 percent off their energy use just by replacing hard drives with solid-state, or flash, memory, which has no watt-hungry moving parts. Dell debuted a laptop with a 32-gigabyte solid-state drive this year. By 2012, manufacturer Samsung says, the drives may hold about 30 times as much data.
PROBLEM: Energy-intensive manufacturing SOLUTION: Build more- efficient factories Producing a laptop requires nearly as much energy as it will use over the rest of its life, but new plants may slash this consumption. One of the world’s greenest computer–chip factories could go online as early as 2009. The Texas Instruments plant in Richardson, Texas, will consume 20 percent less electricity and 35 percent less water, spit out 50 percent fewer nitrogen oxides-and cost 30 percent less to build-than TI’s previous plant. In one energy-saving measure, the plant uses the waste heat generated by its huge air conditioners to warm water for free, eliminating the need for four polluting gas boilers.
Sources for life-cycle assessments: Eric Masanet/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Eric Williams/Arizona State University