The following is an excerpt from the book, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning or Northwest Environment Watch
Arriving at work, I sat down at my desk and turned on my computer to check my e-mail. As I cooked off from my ride, the computer warmed up. Its screen flashed the growing number of kilobytes of memory available. But it said nothing about how many kilograms of stuff or kilowatts of energy it was using.
Electricity – A 150-watt current of electricity, enough to power two incandescent light bulbs, had brought the computer to life. The United States owes 40 percent of the world’s 300 million computers. Computers take 5 percent of the electricity used in American offices. In comparison, lighting uses 20-25 percent. A gun inside my monitor sent a beam of electrons across the 20-inch display, lighting colored phosphors on the inside of the screen and a precise pattern of pixels on the outside: I had no e-mail. The display consumed about as much power as the rest of the computer’s components combined. A “screen saver” popped up on my screen after a few minutes, but the images of swimming tropical fish saved no electricity: my monitor used as much power as ever. Most of the time personal computers are turned on, they are not actually being used. In addition, one-third of computers in the United States are left on at night and on the weekends.
Electricity in Seattle might come from anywhere on “the grid,” the complex network of power plants and transmission lines that keeps a constant flow of electrons available from all over the western United States and beyond. But my computer was probably powered by a hydroelectric dam blocking a Northwest salmon stream, and most likely of all, eastern Washington’s Grand Coulee Damn, the Northwest’s largest generator of electricity. When completed in 1941, Grand Coulee walled off 1,000 miles of salmon habitat in the upped Columbia River and exterminated North America’s largest salmon, the legendary “June hogs,” Chinooks more than five fee long and weighing 100 pounds or more. Dams have blocked more than one-third of all salmon habitat in the seven-state and one-province Columbia Basin.
Chips – The beige computer that stare at me 40 hours a week consist of about 55 pounds of plastics, metals, glass, and silicon. But the heart of this fantastically intricate machine is one-fiftieth of a pound of silicon and metal formed into integrated circuits, also known as semiconductors, or simply chips.
Though the chips weigh next to nothing, making them generated more waste than making any other part of my computer. The 400-step process of making chips and covering them with millions of microscopic electrical switches began with silica mined in Washington. Silica, or silicon dioxide, the basic ingredient of sand, is the most abundant substance in the Earth’s crust. The silica was heated with carbon in an Oregon plant to form carbon monoxide and 98% pure silicon. This silicon was heated with hydrochloric acid, then with hydrogen gas, and cooled to form a “hyper pure” silicon rod eight inches across. The crystalline rod was sliced into wafers less than a millimeter thick, and these were ground and chemically polished to a mirror like shine and trucked to the chip manufacturer in California’s Silicon Valley.
The chip factory, called a wafer fab, stretched longer than two football fields and housed equipment manufactured by more than 100 companies around the world. My computer’s chips – one wafer’s worth – were made in “clean rooms,” where only one to five particles were present in each cubic foot of air and workers wore gowns, booties, and gloves to avoid contaminated the wafers. In contrast, hospital operating rooms have 10,000 to 100,000 particles per cubic foot; outside air contains 500,000 to 1 million particles. Keeping these rooms particle free required pumping the inside air through special filters that removed fine particles. But the filters did not remove solvent vapors, some of which were toxic, from the air the workers breathed.
My silicon wafer was cleaned with acid, and then heated to form a protective surface layer of silicon dioxide. Workers looking through microscopes used ultraviolet light, light-sensitive chemicals, chemical developers, patterned masks, and some of the most precise machinery ever invented to etch a pattern of minute circuits across the wafer. Further etching created holes in which high-energy machines planted phosphorus and boron, which would eventually carry electricity through my finished chips. Each of these stapes was repeated several times, and after most of the steps, the chips were chemically or mechanically cleaned.
Producing the chips in my computer generated 89 pounds of waster – 4,500 times the chips’ own weight! – and used 2,800 gallons of water. State-of-the-art wafer fabs could have made the same chips, allowing me to do all the same computer tasks, with less than half the waste.
Paper-thin layers of Arizona copper were applied to each chips surface, chemically etched (to create the wiring connection the chip’s circuits), cleaned, and then oxidized for insulation. Machines applied an even thinner layer of gold to the back of each chip. After more chemical cleaning, a ship carried my wafer to Malaysia in a box of unbleached Oregon Douglas-fir pulp with shock-absorbing inserts of black polypropylene foam from Japan. The shippers would reuse the box and the foam inserts six times before recycling them.
Chip Packages – In a factory operating around the clock near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian workers earning about $2 an hour and Japanese robots running on coal-fired electricity cut my wafer into hundreds of individual chips and assembled them into “packages.” Each package consisted of a chip, frame, wires, and plastic housing. The packages enabled the chip to be wired to the rest of my computers.
Face-masked, gloved workers glued each chip to an etched copper frame, ran tiny wires of South African gold between the frame and the chip, and molded a plastic compound around the package. Because gold is so expensive, almost none is wasted. But because it is so expensive, gold miners can profitably mine ores that have less than one part per million of gold, leaving behind huge piles of mineral waste contaminated with toxic metals and cyanide used to extract the gold.
Circuit Boards – My completed chip packages were shipped back to the United States. There my computer manufacturer inserted them into printed circuit boards in the disk drives, keyboard, and other devices, as well as into the “motherboard,” the main circuit board on which most internal components are mounted. I once watched a technician open up my computer to add more memory and was fascinated by the maze of boards with tiny solderlike wires zigzagging throughout like the streets of a miniature city. How unnerving, though, to rely so heavily on a piece of equipment whose workings I have little hope of understanding.
A Texas factory made my circuit boards. Their manufacturer used more chemicals, energy and water, and generated more hazardous waste, than the making of any other part of my computer. Machines cut boards made of copper, fiberglass, and epoxy resin to size, drilled holes in them, and cleaned them. In a process not unlike making chips, the holes were plated with a thin layer of copper and the boards etched with circuit patterns. This process generated airborne particulates, acid fumes, VOCs, and other chemical waste.
Then the boards were plated with layers of copper and of tin-lead solder. The tin was imported from Brazil, and the lead was recovered from dead car batteries in Houston. Recycled lead meets 0 percent of the U.S. demand annually. The United States consumes half the world’s lead, mostly for car parts. Because lead is highly toxic and hard to dispose of legally, 90 percent of car batteries are recycled after use. Yet lead waste from electronic goods is almost never recycled. Scattered throughout the computer, lead solder is costly to recycle.
Etching and cleaning left behind a pattern of copper wiring on the circuit boards. Assembling and soldering the boards also produced lead, copper, VOCs, and solvent wastes.
Monitors – When I use my computer, I don’t see the chips, chip packages, and circuit boards hard at work on the inside. All I pay attention to is what appears on the screen – the wide end of a cathode-ray tube (CRT), a vacuum tube made of glass with electron guns at the far end, Like almost all computer monitors sold in the United States, my CRT was made in Japan. A manufacturer in Osaka used various chemicals and ultraviolet light to etch a minute pattern of black stripes and then red, green, and blue phosphors on the glass for my monitor’s front panel. Every color I see on my screen is actually a combination of these three colors.
The sides of the CRT were soldered to the front panel with lead oxide and heated, fusing the parts together to form a bulb. Discarded color monitors are classified a hazardous waste because of lead in the glass. By the year 2005, about 15 million personal computers will have been sent to landfills in the United States. They will occupy about 300 million cubic feet; equivalent to a football field stacked a mile high in computer trash.
Ships, planes, and trucks brought the various computer components to the California plant where they were assembled. The finished computer was carefully boxed with polystyrene foam inserts and trucked to a suburban super store. I ordered it over the phone; a delivery truck brought it to my office.
In all, the factories making my 55-pound computer generated 139 pounds of waste and used 7,300 gallons of water and 2,300 kilowatt-hours of energy (about one-fourth the energy the computer would use over its four-year lifetime). State-of-the-art factories could have made the same computer with half to two-thirds less waste. And different companies – with flat-panel displays (like those in laptop computers) instead of today’s big vacuum tube monitors, for example – could have been made with even less waste.
The computer industry thrives of the rapid adoption of new technologies and resists change much less than older industries. If nudged by governments and consumers, the computer industry could apply its technical expertise toward cleaning up its own act – and fast.
I stepped out to grab some lunch. I left my computer on.
WHAT TO DO?!
Print less often. Send e-mail instead of faxes, and print on scrap paper when you can.
Turn off your computer, or at least your screen, whenever you’re not using it.
Choose the most power-saving settings in your computer’s setup. Look for EPA’s Energy Star logo if you buy new equipment.
If you need to upgrade your computer, have new memory or circuit boards added rather than replacing the whole thing.
If you need a new computer altogether, refurbish a used one or buy a laptop, before buying a new desktop. Laptop computers weigh about one-tenth as much as desktop computers and require about one-third the electricity.