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Sustainability and Computer Purchasing

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jan 21, 2021

Home health and sustainability are often equated with rooftop solar panels, energy-efficient insulation, and low-VOC interiors that improve our indoor air quality. All of these aspects of a sustainable home are undoubtedly important. But the products we purchase for our everyday use also play an essential role in our home's overall energy consumption and total carbon footprint. We make an enormous amount of "embodied carbon" related to mining, manufacturing, and distributing those products within every consumer purchase.

In the specific case of laptop computers and other computing devices, around 50 of the world's 90 naturally occurring elements are used during the manufacturing process. These materials include plastics for the casing and a host of rare metals mined worldwide, including aluminum, chromium, cobalt, platinum, and more. Every time you turn on the computer, you are dependent on an extremely long and complex supply chain of raw materials sourced worldwide.

Home Office

Fortunately, you can make choices to find the most sustainable laptop computer for your home office. Below, we look at the issues of efficiency, materials, waste, battery life, and social responsibility to help you find the most environmentally friendly laptop computer options on the market.

The (Growing) Computing Footprint

As of February 2019, almost three out of every four Americans owned a desktop or laptop computer, with millions of people owning several different computers for their personal, school, or work use. With the COVID-19 pandemic even further "digitalizing" or "virtualizing," our collective reliance on computers and other forms of technology is undoubtedly growing. Many experts state that our world's digitalization offers an opportunity to reduce pressure on certain raw materials. For example, over one-third of American adults say that they get their news from online sources instead of print newspapers. 

This reality certainly reduces the amount of paper sourced from trees around the world. However, it would be naïve to assume that our reliance on computers and phones is completely "resource-free."

Carbon Keyboard

Consider the following:

Though all of these figures might seem to be all that impressive on an individual level, our growing use of computer and digital technology certainly adds up. Every day, we collectively do about 5.8 billion Google searches. Over 218 million laptops were forecast to have been shipped in 2020. And we collectively spend billions of hours every day with our laptops connected to some energy source.

These statistics should convince us that the shift to computing technology also comes with an enormous footprint that we need to consider when searching for the best laptop computer for our home or office use.

What Are The Energy-Efficiency Considerations When Buying a New Laptop?

Firstly, it is essential to state that laptop computers will almost always be more efficient than desktop computers. A new laptop computer will generally consume around 80 percent less electricity than a desktop equivalent. Laptops typically have a maximum draw of only 60 watts, whereas standard desktops may peak around 175 watts. Of course, laptop computers can also be unplugged and run on their batteries for further energy savings.

Suppose you generally leave your laptop on for an average of 8 hours per day. In that case, you can expect your annual energy consumption to be between 150 and 300 kWh. This total energy use amounts to an average of between 44 and 88 kilograms (96 and 193 pounds) of CO2 per year. To find the most energy-efficient laptop models on the market, start by searching the Energy Star website

Generally, newer laptops with solid-state drive (SSD) storage are quicker to operate and use less energy.

Another primary source of energy use on laptops is related to the screen and display. High resolution and enhanced performance integrated displays, such as 4K screens, will use much more energy. Unless you are a major gamer, you can probably get by just fine without a 4K screen to reduce energy usage.

Make sure to find a laptop that allows you to change the power settings. Most laptops will allow you to determine when a computer enters into standby mode. This standby mode cuts the power consumption by at least a third for even further energy savings.

Dell Latitude 951 Laptop
Dell Latitude 951 Laptop. Photo Credit: Dell

How Does Battery Life of a Laptop Affect Energy Efficiency?

Another critical element connected to the energy efficiency of the laptop you use is the real battery life. Older laptops might have batteries that only last 1-2 hours. Now, the Dell Latitude 9510, for example, has an impressive battery life of 18 hours and 17 minutes. The longer the battery life, the less energy you will have to pull from the grid.


What Are The Environmental Considerations Related to the Materials in Your Laptop?

As we stated above, the mining of raw materials and a laptop's manufacturing process contributes significantly to the product's environmental footprint. One leading expert believes that only 20 percent of a laptop's ecological impact arises from its use. The other 80 percent results from a more in-depth look at the whole life cycle of the computer, including:

  • The mining process of the numerous metals and other raw materials that go into the parts of the computer;
  • The length and complexity of the supply chain that brings these materials to the factory for manufacture;
  • The type of energy and materials utilized during the actual manufacturing process;
  • The distribution network used to deliver the laptop to the end-user
HP Elite Dragonfly
HP Elite Dragonfly. Photo Credit: HP

Unfortunately, it is pretty much impossible to find laptop computers made from local materials to cut back on the supply chain's length. Fortunately, some major laptop manufacturers such as HP and Dell are beginning to promote computers made with large percentages of recycled materials. For example, over 82 percent of the HP Elite Dragonfly's mechanical components are made of recycled materials.

It is still hard to find reliable information about which laptop manufacturing companies include high amounts of recycled components into their products. However, as "urban mining" of electronic waste continues to grow, laptops with high percentages of recycled metal and plastic content should become more common on the market. This market tendency is fundamental to reduce the need for metallic mining, which causes enormous environmental and social catastrophes in developing countries worldwide.


Why Is The Issue of Electronic Waste Growing?

Planned obsolescence is, unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of our current economic paradigm. Products are made to have a relatively short lifespan. As consumers, we must purchase another product when the first one wears out. In laptops, most experts agree that laptops only have an expected lifespan of 4-5 years with regular use. Many people find that it is simply cheaper (and easier) to purchase a new laptop when the memory fills up, or the battery dies, rather than find a replacement or upgrade parts.

The relatively limited durability and life expectancy of laptops are contributing to the growing problems of electronic waste. According to one estimate, around 50 million tons of e-waste are produced each year. That figure is unfortunately expected to continue to grow in the coming years. Improper disposal of worn-out phones, computers, and other electronics can cause significant environmental toxicity problems. Metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium can leach out of landfills and contaminate water sources.

Many laptops and other electronics have brominated flame retardants and PVC components. If burned, this can lead to severe air pollution problems affecting people living near landfills. According to one recent estimate, only 25 percent of e-waste gets recycled, and most of that recycling occurs in developing countries.

In places like the United States and Europe, vast amounts of e-waste are shipped each year to developing countries. This "out of sight, out of mind" mentality is a global problem. It means that poor people in developing countries are forced to deal with this growing, dangerous waste stream that comes with purchasing new devices regularly.  

How Can You Cut Down on Electronic Waste?

The use of laptop computers and other technologies will continue to grow in the foreseeable future. To reduce the environmental footprint of these products, consumers should:

  • Prioritize laptops that are the most durable so that you can keep them for the most amount of time possible;
  • Research the end-of-life recycling potential of the computer you purchase;
  • Find laptops that can be easily upgraded or fixed to reduce the need to buy a new product;
  • Find companies that advertise the use of recycled content in the laptops they sell.
holding the earth

Social Responsibility and Computers

Socially-minded consumers will also want to research companies that exhibit social responsibility in their supply chains. Many of the metals used in computers come from conflict-ridden areas. For example, at least 50 percent of the world's cobalt comes from mines in the Congo, where child labor is a significant problem, exposing young children to serious health vulnerabilities. Check out this Amnesty International Report to see which companies are implicated in this serious social issue.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-01T00:12:43+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.