Global computer upgrade will see surge in e-waste

The release of Microsoft's Vista operating system will undermine efforts to reduce electronic waste by rendering millions of computers obsolete, according to campaigners trying to highlight the problems faced by recyclers in the developing world.

The new operating system is designed to replace Windows as the global standard but many existing machines will not have the hardware necessary to support Vista.

A study by Softchoice Corporation in the USA suggested that around half the business computers in North America would not be compatible with the basic version of Vista while 94% could not currently cope with the premium version.

While in many cases upgrading a computer’s RAM will be enough, this will still leave many older machines redundant and there will doubtless be countless cases where, rather than upgrading a single component, companies and individuals will opt to replace their entire system.

The Basel Action Network (BAN), a campaigning organisation dedicated to highlighting the ongoing shipment of toxic waste to dumping grounds in the developing world, claims that the introduction of the new software will lead to a tsunami of e-waste being exported to countries already awash with the West’s cast off computers.

“With the release of Vista, Microsoft could bring both a massive digital dump and a perpetuation of the digital divide to the global community,” said Jim Puckett, coordinator of BAN.

“Most developing countries have no infrastructure whatsoever to collect and recycle computers, so when they die they are simply dumped and burned.

“A truly responsible industry will take steps to ensure that innovation does not automatically equate to obsolescence, toxic waste and a growing population of hardware have-nots.”

According to BAN, more than 50% of these computers globally, are exported to developing countries either whole or dissassembled, where they are processed and disposed of in a manner that causes serious damage to workers and local environments.

The result of this is that the gains of the electronics industry translate into serious environmental costs externalized to the poor. The NGO has previously documented problems caused by the recycling of electronics in such countries as China, India or Nigeria where women and children ‘cook’ lead-tin soldered circuit boards over small fires, soak chips in dangerous acid baths along river ways, smash lead and phosphor laden cathode ray tubes, and burn wires and plastic housings in open dumps.

The UK’s Green Party has also expressed concerns about the increase in waste the system is likely to produce, with Sian Berry, principal speaker for the party telling the press that future archaeologists will be able to identify a ‘Vista Upgrade Layer’ when they go through our landfill sites.

A spokesman for Microsoft defended the company’s record and argued that steps had been taken to reduce Vista’s environmental impact.

“Environmental stewardship is important to Microsoft,” he told edie.

“We are actively involved in PC refurbishment and computer recycling programmes that send unwanted PCs to those who need, but can least afford them.

“We also developed Windows Vista is a way that promotes energy conservation – reducing both enterprise and consumer energy bills as well as the harmful environmental impact from electricity generation.”

Sam Bond

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