These days, environmentally conscious folks are eating locally, conserving water, and reducing air travel. But have you thought about the impact of your computer usage on the planet?
Computers contain toxins such as mercury, cadmium, and beryllium. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, computers make up much of the 20 million to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste produced annually worldwide.
Surprisingly, software may be a key factor in computer waste. That’s because of planned obsolescence, the process by which companies design computer products to become less useful over time. This results in you having to purchase new software and replace hardware more often than you’d like. For instance, in order to take full advantage of the graphical features of Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system, a user may need to upgrade to a computer that’s powerful enough—new enough—to display them.
Between 1997 and 2005, the average life span of computers in developed countries fell from six years to two, according to Greenpeace.
Some, like Ifny Lachance, advocate a shift away from proprietary software and toward free and open-source software in order to counteract this trend.
Lachance, cofounder and coordinator of Free Geek Vancouver, knows firsthand the relationship between proprietary software and e-waste. Every month, her computer reuse and recycling centre takes in 25 tonnes of discarded computer hardware.
“Software and hardware manufacturers have a very cynical approach when it comes to designing things to go obsolete,” Lachance said. “It’s a great short-term way to make a profit, but in the long term of our species it’s totally irresponsible.”
Manufacturers consider the source code of proprietary software—like the Windows and Mac operating systems—a trade secret. When you buy the software, you’re really just purchasing the right to use it.
In contrast, free and open-source software entitles a user to many rights. Users of free software have the freedom to run it for any purpose, modify it, and copy and redistribute the software in original or modified forms. With open-source software, such as the Mozilla Firefox Web browser and the Android operating system, users can tinker with the source code and collaborate with others to improve the software.
Speaking by phone from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Richard Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, told the Georgia Straight, “Proprietary software is an injustice, and our movement is to put an end to that.” The iconic software developer’s ideals of collaboration helped bring about the GNU/Linux operating system, a free-software alternative to Windows.
Explaining the difference between free and open-source software, Stallman said that “open source was formulated as a way of talking about mostly the same software, but without mentioning an ethical issue—it closes its eyes to the question of freedom versus the dictatorship of the developer.”
If using proprietary software means throwing out computers to accommodate new versions, using more free and open-source software may be part of the solution. Compared with proprietary software, these alternatives tend not to up their system requirements as much with each release. So, you can start off with an older computer, upgrade less often, and produce less e-waste in the process.
But Edin Terzo, a Seattle-based software developer who’s working on the next version of Microsoft Office for Mac, argues that proprietary software isn’t entirely to blame for junked computers. He said new versions of programs are sold because there is demand for them.
Software is used by customers who, in most cases, are not as technologically inclined as its developers, Terzo explained. He noted that proprietary software is appealing to users because each program offers “one solution with one purpose”.
Regarding obsolescence, Terzo said that, from the consumer end, “there is this need for more services and more products to be delivered at an ever-faster rate.”
Cloud computing is one trend that may lead to a reduction in the need to upgrade hardware. This concept describes the growing use of applications that are hosted remotely. One major example of this is Google’s Gmail, which is accessed through a Web browser, in contrast to Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail program, which must be installed on a user’s computer.
“For the average user, there will be convergence in technology, where you don’t need to have applications,” said Hasan Cavusoglu, an assistant professor in management information systems at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Everything will be done through a Web browser.”
At Free Geek’s East Vancouver location (1820 Pandora Street), you can get a repurposed computer—built with used computer parts—for less than $100. These computers can easily handle Web-browsing, multimedia, and even business applications—all using free and open-source software.
And if Web-based applications take over as Cavusoglu predicts, you may not have to upgrade your computer as often, since your machine will handle less of the processing. Indeed, you may never again have to buy new versions of off-the-shelf software, more random-access memory, or additional hard drives. But you’d better have a kick-ass Internet connection.