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Wooden computers offer 'greener' desktop

April 19, 2004 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Biodegradable monitor cases may reduce trash.

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Bored by your beige computer? A Swedish company is offering what they say is an ecofriendly alternative: a range of wooden computer monitors and keyboards that aim to brighten office life, while cutting the environmental impact of computer junk.

Around 45 million new personal computer systems were bought in 2002-03 in the United States alone, many of which will end up in landfills. There is growing concern that the plastic skeletons are stacking up, and that toxic materials in their casings, chips and displays are leaching into the environment.

Many standard plastic computer casings contain chemicals called brominated flame retardants, added to improve fire safety. Once in the environment, the cancer-causing chemicals are thought to accumulate in animal and human tissues.

To prevent this, Sollentuna-based company Swedx are making computer screens, keyboards and mice encased in timber.

Swedx's wooden cases are custom built using wood logged from managed forests in China, and they decompose faster than plastic. "It is a fascinating idea," says Maria Leet Socolof who studies clean technologies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Pine, not plastic

Swedx has sold several thousand computer pieces since it launched them last year. A 15-inch flat screen monitor, available in beech, ash or sapele wood, costs about EU400, a keyboard EU50 and a mouse EU40. That is roughly 30% more than plastic versions, says company vice-president Jan Salloum.

Other companies are showing an interest in manufacturing wood-encased computers, and Salloum believes the market will grow.

Even if sales went through the roof, however, wooden computers are unlikely to be an environmental panacea. Discarded machines contain other pollutants including lead in the monitor's cathode ray tubes and heavy metals such as cadmium in microchips, says Eric Williams who studies computers' environmental impact at the United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan.

Producing personal computers also chews up resources: the creation of one computer requires ten times its own weight in chemicals and fossil fuels, according to Williams's calculations, largely due to the energy-intensive production of microchips. Producing a car or refrigerator uses one or two times its weight, he says.

There are other moves to clean up computers' environmental record. European Union legislation set to come into force in the next two years, for example, requires computer manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling electronic waste, and outlaws certain flame retardants and toxic metals from electronic equipment. Some American states have banned monitors from landfills.

Meanwhile, Williams advises computer users to sell or give away their old machines rather than dumping them, to consider buying a used computer and to turn off workstations to save electricity.

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