Does Software pollute?

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Does Software pollute?

Of course it does. The average USA citizen, for example, produces 4.6 lbs of solid waste per day, and an ever growing part of it is software. Sure, software is just instructions, the immaterial part of a computer and many other electronic devices. As such, it should not pollute, right? Instead, it does: a lot. Obviously this doesn’t happen directly. We pollute a lot by trashing too much working electronic devices of any kind and buying unnecessary others, too often.

In January 2007 the UK Green Party officially declared Vista, the new operating system likely to be installed on many millions of new and used personal computers, a “landfill nightmare”. The reasons? The fact that this software may “force expensive and environmentally damaging hardware upgrades”. More specifically the fear is that an enormous number of monitors and other perfectly working hardware “will be junked by consumers and companies as Vista will refuse to play the new high-definition DVDs with current monitors and sound cards”.

Potential risks for the environment do not come just from the need to control and restrict entertainment or to sell ever more software or computers every other year. The Children Machines described in another chapter are made according to the latest, more environmentally friendly regulations. Those laptops, however, are meant to be sold and used in countries which have no adequate recycling centers and no money or infrastructures to collect used computers. This is already raising serious concerns about the environmental impact of the whole “One Laptop Per Child” project in a few years from now, when those laptops will break or be dismissed from use.

The reason to be concerned about it is that electronic devices contain many toxic substances: so many that in 2004 even a report of the United Nations University of Tokio recommended to extend the lives of computers for this very reason. The report pointed out that, in that year “a 2-gram memory chip required 1.3 kilograms (1,300 grams) of fossil fuels and materials”, while a whole computer and a big monitor required “1.8 tons of water, fossil fuels and chemicals to make”.

Generally speaking, making hardware or any other high-tech digital object can be a pretty dirty job. In April 2000 the San Francisco Bay Guardian reported that several hi-tech workers were suing their employers because of serious illnesses. Higher rates of miscarriage, some types of cancer and premature death have been observed among the workers of semiconductor and hard disks factories in several countries.

Today all this still happens, just in other countries. Electronics manufacturing workers in Mexico and many other countries have just started to discover that they face the same health and safety hazards experienced 20 years ago in Silicon Valley.

The problem is not limited to the manufacturing of electronic devices: it remains even when it’s time to dump or recycle them. Electronic waste or E-waste is the most rapidly growing waste problem in the world. In 2005 nearly 2 million tons of electronic waste, including 133,000 PCs discarded each day, were produced in the U.S. alone.

This is true even if many computer makers have indeed started to use more environmentally friendly materials and procedures. All around the world there is still a huge quantity of older components which were produced committing what a 2002 report called the Seven Deadly Sins: these include usage of lead (brain and blood damage), flame retardants (hormones imbalance), and PVC cabling which generate dioxins when burned. Even in this case, often the world' richest countries are still simply dropping the problem abroad. Still in the U.S., only 10 to 15 percent of electronics are currently recycled, but in 80 per cent of those cases up to 80 percent simply means “exported overseas”. The situation in most other countries is the same or worse.

The true cost of software upgrades

Replacing even one single software program may mean to be forced to replace a whole, still perfectly working computer, that is to contribute to the problem described above. It starts innocently: a computer has 512 MB (Megabytes) of memory but the next version of program X requires at least 600 MB just to start up (in a computer, the “memory” is the set of circuits used for temporary storage of data and intermediate, real-time calculations. Permanent data storage happens in separate hard disks which can be internal or external to the computer). But there is no 88 Megabyte memory stick on the marketplace, the minimum size is 256 or 512 MB. Since they cost only a few dollars, OK, no big deal, let’s buy 256, right? Yes, but only if the the motherboard of that computer does have a place where one can plug the memory sticks they sell today.

At this point, in order to use “the next version of program X” the owner has already given in to buying more memory than is actually needed, plus a new motherboard to host it. Even if the program itself was obtained, legally or illegally, at no cost. But the new motherboard is, very likely, not compatible with the processor, the heart of the computer, so it is necessary to buy one of them too, please. Will the power supply connector of the new motherboard be directly compatible, without any adapter, with the power supply socket on the motherboard? This is not a big deal, especially because it only matters if the old power supply is powerful enough to handle the current motherboards and processors.

Does it end here? Maybe not… (continues here)