Computers are an essential part of modern life but they are a source of many hazardous substances like heavy metals, brominated flame retardants, and PVC.
Fortunately, manufactures have been making progress in finding safer alternatives for some of the most harmful materials. In 2006, the European Union implemented legislation, known as RoHS, to regulate hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. According to Greenpeace, computer manufacturers have significantly reduced their use of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium and certain brominated flame retardants in order to comply with the new regulations. These changes have been implemented by all companies and not only for the European market1.
There’s still a long way to go to make computers safer. A 2007 study by Greenpeace showed that bromine was present in over 40 percent of the components tested. PVC was found in 44 percent of all plastic coatings of internal wires and external cables. Phthalates were found in the power cables supplied with all laptops. Certain toxic chemicals found did not exceed the EU standard but there are many hazardous chemicals found in laptops that are not covered by the standard.
If you are in the market for a new computer there are helpful tools available to find one with fewer toxins. Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics 2017 grades manufactures on their efforts to reduce their environmental impacts. One of the three criteria it uses is chemical management. It evaluates the elimination of hazardous chemicals from the product and the manufacturing process. The other criteria are energy and resource consumption, both of which have considerable impact on the environment.
The guide includes a report card for each manufacturer with an overall grade, as well as grades for each of the three criteria. Apple received the highest grade, a “B”, for chemical management. This is your safest bet for a new computer.
Chemical Management Report Card
Apple was the first electronics manufacturer to commit to eliminating PVC and BFRs (brominated flame retardants). It has gone beyond RoHS standards to include additional hazardous chemicals such as beryllium, antimony trioxide and phthalates. They have also committed to restrict benzene, n-hexane, toluene, and chlorinated organic compound.
Dell originally committed to phasing out BFRs and PVC but has been unable to meet that goal. Dell (and EMC) now have a 2020 plan to phase out environmentally sensitive material as viable alternatives exist. They still have a goal to phase out BFRs and PVC but have not committed to a timeline. They also have plans to phase out 4 phthalates ahead of the EU deadline. Some laptops and tablets are now free of PVC and BFRs.
The Elite series is free of BFRs. All products except power cords and data cable are free of PVC. HP has set a 2020 deadline to phase out remaining uses of BFRs and PVS as well as antimony and certain phthalates but only as viable alternatives exist.
All products are free of PVC and BFRs. The grade is brought down due to lack of transparency of their list of suppliers.
All other manufactures listed, including Microsoft and Sony, score a C or lower for hazard chemical eliminations.
Another helpful source is the The Green Electronics Council’s Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). The system helps purchasers compare and select desktop computers, notebooks and monitors based on their environmental attributes.
Compared to traditional computer equipment, all EPEAT-registered computers have reduced levels of cadmium, lead, and mercury to better protect human health and the environment. They are more energy efficient, which reduces emissions of climate changing greenhouse gases. They are also easier to upgrade and recycle. In fact, manufacturers must offer safe recycling options for the products when they are no longer useable.
EPEAT products are identified as EPEAT-Bronze, EPEAT-Silver, or EPEAT-Gold depending on the number of environmental features incorporated in the product. You can search by manufacturer if you want to learn more about a particular product or you can search for Gold rated products. If you click on the product you can see more details about the manufacturer’s management of hazardous substances under the heading “Substance Management”. There is also an advanced search feature that allows you to search for information on specific chemicals such as chromium, beryllium, chlorine and bromine.