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John Pavley

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The Environmental Cost of "Design First"

Posted: 07/07/2012 11:52 am

I have all sorts of gadgets and computers that I don't use and I'm not comfortable getting rid of. It's not that I'm sentimentally attached to these things -- well, not to all of them. I still think my original Apple Newton MessagePad from 1993 is pretty sweet, as is my Danger Hiptop from 2002. But you can have my collection of leftover HP Inkjet printers!

The problem with throwing these things away is that computer electronics are made out of poisons. A single phone or laptop or monitor by itself isn't very dangerous to the environment. But there are millions of devices with computer chips manufactured every year and millions of them become obsolete every year. Computer chips contain toxic materials like lead, mercury and chromium. You should not eat computer chips and you have to be careful about how you dispose of them.

The dangerous nature of digital waste is not a new problem, and way back in the early '00s EPEAT was created to set standards for "green electronics." While EPEAT's standards are not legally binding, they have been widely supported by governments and consumer electronics companies. The list of participating manufacturers includes almost all the well-known brands that you're going to find in stores or online. EPEAT is a model of industry self-regulation, using jointly created standards instead of government policy to solve a serious environmental health issue.

One of the companies that helped set the EPEAT standards was Apple. And this week Apple just informed EPEAT that they are opting out of the standard!

So this is pretty serious. Apple is the thought leader for the tech industry right now. It will be hard for Samsung, Microsoft, Google and Sony to continue to support a standard that Cupertino is not supporting. It costs time, resources and money to keep computer waste out of landfills and water tables. If the first mover gives up on EPEAT, then the fast followers are sure to follow.

So why did Apple drop out of green computing? Is it too expensive? Is it too time consuming? Does it make Apple products non-competitive? According to CIO Journal, it was "design direction."

Blast you twee designers and your cutting-edge, hipster ways! You are killing the environment! (Sorry, I got carried away. Some of my best friends are designers!)

It might be hard for some folks to take Apple's explanation seriously. After all, isn't it possible to design cool products that are also environmentally friendly?

Maybe not.

Since the rise of the iPhone, Android and thin-obsessed laptops, the ability to easily and safely dispose of consumer electronics has disappeared. All these sleek, screw-less, wireless devices have to be glued and soldered together. Not only can't these things be repaired or upgraded, but they also can not be pulled apart to recycle their components.

This makes me mad because I think we could all put up with a little more clunkiness if it meant less poison deposited in the soil. After all, it's a design and fashion problem, not a technical problem. Just like smart fashionistas will not wear furs, maybe it's time for smart digerati not to buy phones without screws.

 

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