Life Cycle Analysis and Eco PC Review
Life Cycle Analysis
The single most important term for environmental analysis of computer gear is Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). The ISEE/IEE conference began and ended with the topic, and a large portion of the 50+ presentations could be considered variations of LCA applied to different products and processes in different parts of the world. LCA is a core foundation for EPCR and deserves more than a passing mention in this introduction.
The eco-footprint of a computer is not really the computer itself. It is the pollution created by and raw materials used... during the computer's manufacture, the transportation of the computer from the factory to the user, the generation of electricity need while the computer is used, the toxic materials from the computer that gets leeched into the soil at the end of its life. Life Cycle Analysis examines all of these various phases in the life of a product, from the cradle of raw materials extraction to the grave of refuse, to obtain an accurate overall assessment of its environmental impact.
LCA was conceptualized decades ago, but became popular in the last 20 years, first to support environmental claims for marketing, and more recently as a key to environmental policy. LCA is most commonly used within companies for internal purposes, such as product improvement, support for strategic choices and benchmarking. Today, there are two ISO standards designed specifically for LCA applications:
- ISO/DIS 14040: Principles and Framework
- ISO/DIS 14044: Requirements and Guidelines
Among first published LCA studies of a desktop PC was Environmental Impacts in the Production of Personal Computers in 2003 by Eric Williams, then at UN University in Tokyo (and now at the Univ. of Arizona). It appeared as chapter three of the book Computers and the Environment, which Prof. Williams co-edited with Ruediger Kuehr. The study is long, complex and detailed, with a great deal of statistical analysis that hardly makes for compelling reading; however, its conclusions are compelling:
The production of a computer is more energy-intensive due to its high-tech nature; extensive processing is required to create its complex components. The combined high-energy intensity and short life span raises a computer's lifetime energy impact to that of a refrigerator. But 96% of a refrigerator's lifetime fossil fuel consumption occurs during its use phase. For a computer, the situation is reversed: 25% occurs during use, while 75% occurs during production. So while its most important for appliances like a fridge to reduce energy use over the use phase, for computers, the best green strategy is to reduce energy in production and increase its useful life.
This is not to suggest that efforts to reduce a computer's electricity consumption by eco-minded users is in vain. But such efforts are not enough, from an ecological perspective. Buying products that require less energy to make, organizing to press manufacturers to become greener in the production, or simply extending the life of what you might consider a computer that's long in the tooth are all worthy options to consider, and they may be much more important that getting an extra 10W drop in AC consumption from a newer power supply or computer... especially when the ecological cost of manufacturing the new gear is considered. Reduce, Reuse and Recycle are still the 3Rs of eco-friendly behavior. In the case of computers, Reduce at the manufacturing level is paramount.