Mar 032010
 

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One laptop per child seems a simple slogan, chock full of benefit.

What could go wrong when you put the power of the Internet and solar cells into the hands of children in the developing world? After all, not only does it train the global underclass in the tools of modern production, it also unleashes a creativity that may allow them to leapfrog the old, dirty, industrial development that has fouled the planet.

Unfortunately, those very laptops may end up doing that last thing. “What is the entire country of Uruguay going to do with all those laptops” at the end of their useful life, asked Jeff Omelchuck of the Green Electronics Council at the Greener Gadgets conference in New York City on February 25. “They are a very resource intensive product to make. Will there be recycling? Did we also extend the gift to put in a closed loop infrastructure?”

More than one million such laptops have already been distributed, from Kenya to Uruguay, according to Yves Behar, a designer at fuseproject. In fact, every child in Uruguay now has such a laptop and the program is expanding into high schools. And the designer has begun to work on the next iteration of the machine, one potentially sporting two screens, thin like an iPad, and made completely from plastic: dubbed the XO3.

Even the cheapest laptop has “more precious gems and metals than any Pope has had,” noted Leonardo Bonanni, founder of Sourcemap.org, at the conference. His Web site allows users to track the constituents of any gadget, from a laptop to the carbon footprint of a bomb. “There is no excuse not to know where things come from and what they’re made of, especially if you’re buying them,” he said.

In fact, our gadgets collectively contain much of the world’s copper (there’s a pound in most laptops), tin from artisanal miners and lithium, “so much that it could be called a bomb,” Bonanni said. And then there’s the really rare stuff like indium for screens and super-expensive rhodium for electrical contacts. All told modern electronics require 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured—and fuel the same kind of exploitative and annihilating resource-extraction that has been a hallmark of Western consumption since at least the ivory craze of Victorian England. “These materials don’t really belong to us, they belong to humanity. We’re just shepherding it from one place to another,” Bonanni said.

That turns out to be a short process: typical cell phone users replace their phones every 18 months, contributing to a growing pile of electronic waste (e-waste). The U.S. alone produces roughly three million metric tons of the stuff each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). That e-waste is then often improperly incinerated or broken down in places like China or India, poisoning locals.

In fact, the amount of e-waste looks set to grow exponentially, according to UNEP, as cell phones, laptops and other gadgets proliferate in these same countries. Seven times more mobile phones are set to be hitting the junkyard by 2020 in China, 18 times more over the same span in India. Already, the world produces 50 million metric tons of e-waste a year.

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