Dell was responding to a question about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which aims to produce a $100 laptop for use by schoolchildren in the developing world. He pointed out that most of the 125 million PCs discarded each year are about as powerful as the $100 laptop and raised some interesting questions. Would it be a better idea to re-use those computers? Could governments distribute them?
These questions have already been answered by Computer Aid, a not-for-profit organisation that has already shipped over 90,000 professionally refurbished PCs donated by UK companies for re-use in developing countries.
The vast majority of these PCs have been distributed to schools and colleges with the active support of host governments. Yet the increasing success of the programme means Computer Aid is currently facing a severe shortage of donated PCs to meet increasing demand from communities in developing countries.
Producers have been slow to provide practical support for PC re-use, a far more environmentally-friendly option than recycling PCs by stripping them down to recover materials.
Professors Rudiger Kuerh and Eric Williams from the United Nations University in Tokyo have shown that PC manufacture requires peculiarly large amounts of materials. The manufacture of a single PC requires 1.7 tonnes of materials, including the consumption of over ten times its own weight in fossil fuels.
Even more peculiar than the amount of materials consumed in PC production is the skewed distribution of consumption across the PC lifecycle. Most electrical products consume around 95 per cent of life-cycle fossil fuels when in use; however 75 per cent of PC fossil fuel consumption has already happened before the computer is switched on for the very first time.
This has crucial implications for business PC users looking at how best to reduce the environmental impact of PC use. The high energy during manufacture is compounded by a PC's unnecessarily short lifespan, often just three or four years. While most green IT efforts have focused on reducing power consumption, a true environmental impact assessment must study the entire product lifecycle.
As 75 per cent of the environmental damage occurs during the PC production process professors Williams and Kuehr conclude that, while power-saving remains important, production redesign and extending the useable life span of PCs are the most effective options to reduce the environmental cost of PCs. They conclude that re-using a whole computer, 'is some 20 times more effective at saving life cycle energy than recycling.'
The UK government has recognised this fact, which is why the WEEE directive explicitly requires the prioritisation of re-use over recycling. To recycle a computer when it is only three or four years old is a terrible waste. That is why Computer Aid says 'Don't recycle - Re-use.'
A PC professionally refurbished by Computer Aid will enjoy a second-user life of another three or four years on a school-desk in Africa - neatly doubling its productive working life.
And as Michael Dell pointed out, many of the PCs we throw away have the same processing power as the $100 laptop. Responsible re-use of existing PCs is the logical environmental and ethical choice. Why wait for a possible future $100 laptop when we can donate our old PCs for re-use today to make a real difference to schoolchildren in developing countries?
If the IT industry really is serious about improving the environment, as well as tackling the digital divide, it is time to make the switch to re-use by donating old PCs to charities such as Computer Aid. By effectively doubling the working life of every PC, re-use provides a simple and practical way for companies to reduce their environmental footprint and successfully re-distribute such valuable learning tools.
Tony Roberts is the founder and CEO of Computer Aid International.