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How Much E-Waste Per Child?

ewasteperchild.jpgThe One Laptop Per Child proposal (aka, the Hundred-Dollar Laptop) generates controversy nearly every time it's mentioned here, whether due to questions about its necessity, arguments about its configuration, or push-back about whether it's really even possible. But a post today at Triple Pundit points to an even more critical issue: would the success of the OLPC plan result in an explosion of hazardous material waste across the developing world?

There's no question that the materials used in computers are problematic. Computer hardware can include plastics made with dioxin and so-called "brominated flame retardants," as well as mercury, lead and other harmful metals. Although the quantities may be small in any single machine, cumulatively, some 20-50 million tons of computer, electric and electronic waste enters the wastestream every year (PDF). When these materials get into the water supply, they can lead to birth defects and worse. As of now, the companies lining up to take part in the OLPC project all use traditional -- as in toxic -- materials for their systems. If the OLPC program manages to distribute a million laptops around the developing world, what kind of price will those regions have to pay a few years down the road, when the laptops are broken, discarded or replaced by newer designs?

A few years ago, the question would end there: we would have to decide whether we want portable electronics or zero harmful waste. But we're now moving to a world where we could have both. We've covered, in recent months, a variety of developments that could be combined to make a laptop that, when eventually discarded, would produce few dangerous waste products. The two breakthroughs that could make this possible are bioplastics, which use plants to create a replacement for inorganic plastics, and organic polymer electronics, which use organic chemistry to create computation and display devices.

The most common form of bioplastic, PLA, is made from corn and has been moderately well-received as a packaging material. But a version of PLA that's structurally strong enough for portable electronics is now available. Material from the kenaf plant is used as fiber-reinforcement for the plastic -- and PLA reinforced with kenaf can be stronger than the commonplace high-impact ABS plastic.

We typically discuss organic polymer electronics (OPE) as a feature of the fabrication future, but the clean leapfrog application is important, too. The production of OPE is much cleaner than traditional electronics, and the materials themselves contain few if any heavy metals. Recent OPE developments include a microprocessor able to run at around 100MHz (far slower than today's fastest laptops, but easily fast enough for the kinds of basic information and communication tasks described for the OLPC project), a variety of slower circuit and sub-processor plastics, an organic polymer battery and even a colorful, fast flat-panel display. Even the solar panels often suggested as an add-on for the hundred dollar laptop could be made with organic polymer materials.

The bioplastic/organic polymer version of the hundred dollar laptop (BPOPOLPC?) would have a few notable drawbacks compared to the traditional manufacturing version. The generator portion of the hand-crank power system would still require metals. The wireless communication gear would also likely require traditional materials, at least until the experimental organic equivalents leave the labs. The most important drawback, however, is the price. Even if computer manufacturers can't currently get the production costs of the traditional OLPC model below $100, they're awfully close; the bioplastic/OPE equivalent would undoubtedly cost hundreds of dollars more.

All of these issues are likely to be solved in the coming months and years as the organic polymer revolution continues. This raises a troubling question for those who support the OLPC idea: is the economic and educational development result of widespread distribution of the hundred dollar laptop worth the environmental and economic cost of the waste products that will have to be dealt with when they are discarded? Or it is better to redirect OLPC efforts towards a greener/cleaner version, most likely available by 2010?

This may be a case where a middle-of-the-road approach is a good one. A limited distribution of traditional technology hundred dollar laptops would test whether the development results are truly as dramatic as hoped, while focused efforts on a bioplastic/OPE next-generation model would make a resulting global distribution a far less environmentally damaging idea.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference How Much E-Waste Per Child?:

» ‘One Laptop Per Child’ May Lead to e-Waste Explosion from Environment Blog
The ‘One Laptop Per Child’ proposal is continuously kicking up controversies. Keeping aside the questions about its necessity, arguments about its configuration, or push-back about whether it's really even possible – did one imagine the explosion of... [Read More]

Comments (11)


In the end the real question we need to ask: Is ignorance less harmful than waste? Most people that read this site would probably answer that ignorance is the greater culprit. If these laptops turn out to be as effective a teaching, learning and leapfrogging tool that most expect (and I believe that it will have far more impact than people realize) then the waste problem will be addressed in due course.

I'm on board with Xavier. If OLPC can openly acknowlege that the waste problem is an issue and address it in future revisions, the compromise is worthwhile.

E-waste has been issue raised by few people. It is an extreme serious issue that developing world has been dumped with old electronic systems thro donation schemes or otherwise. Also see:


Zero waste and zero emissions, total recovery of all materials within the system should be the rule.

OLPC should have the capability to charge standard size batteries as well as the laptop's.

Combine hand crank with bicycles and pedal power and you have a reliable form of task and emergency power. Add a little solar and you might have a personal microgeneration power system anywhere on this planet.

Couple that with a global telecom system operating open source and fully affordable as a gift to the children from the national government and the world community. Everybody online all the time, local system and global simultaneously.

If it all ever synchronizes it will be a miracle and, I hope, a blessing.

Three prayers - please, thanks, wow!

Don't hold your breath.

Jack ODonnell:

End of life recycling of electronics in developing countries requires markets for the plastics, lead, circuit boards and CRT glass that result from the demanufacturing process. Such markets are scare in developing countries. Any potential effort for formal e-waste recycling in these areas faces competition from backyard entrepreneurs who "process" computers without environmental regulations.

There are 2 solutions to this problem. Make green computers and until that is possible require manufacturers to buy back the computers they sell.

For information on dumping of e-waste see
Info about buy back initiatives can be found at

Another option for the OLPC project would be to use aluminum which is much more recyclable and rugged than most plastics. Many countries are capable of recycling aluminum even in developing nations.

I think that its irresponsible to dump more waste on people for knowledge sake.

From an interface design and cultural identity perspective as well - the OLPC should try to be sensitive to the potential neo-colonialist approach of bringing these knowledge devices to developing nations. Since the traditional keypad is mainly english or french and even the Web is held captive by anglo-saxon culture it has the potential to overwrite valuable cultural language and knowledge bases and not be as user-centered as would be ideal to promote and preserve cultural diversity on a global level.

Hopefully these devices will be designed to be taken apart, re-furbished and modified by the users as its own inherent technological education process.

Britt, good call on the aluminum suggestion.

I would disagree, however, that the web is "held captive by anglo-saxon culture" -- the growth of Chinese-language websites has been phenomenal, and the number of Chinese website may surpass the number of English sites in the next few years (or so I've read, I'll see if I can dig up the cite).

"Since the traditional keypad is mainly english or french and even the Web is held captive by anglo-saxon culture it has the potential to overwrite valuable cultural language and knowledge bases and not be as user-centered as would be ideal to promote and preserve cultural diversity on a global level."

A/V capability may help to alleviate some of the keyboard and literacy issues. Sound and image can combine with letter, pictograph, or glyph.

The more open source nad user based the better. It's the difference between a government and a community project and that difference is critical.

Joan Cuiaba:

This is a problem suited for the people who first invented the compass, printing, gunpowder, and computing. The Chinese must be on the frontline of solving this developing crisis. China is the richest and fastest growing economy in the world. It is time for China to take its rightful place as the source of enlightened sustainability.

Terry Mar:

There seems to be a fundamental issue that most 3rd world/developing countries ignore or do not have the manufacturing/resources/internal infrastructure to support. That is the idea of "Recycling". The question is, can these developing countries develop, and support or do they even care about things as simple as glass/bottles/jars, aluminum/cans, tin/can and paper/cardboard recycling? Currently they don't, so the next question is why a recycling industry cannot be created in these developing countries? And if recycling of the iteams above could be developed, then why not e-waste? My guess is that in these developing countries it of no concern. I also do not think that these countries have the need for the byproducts/resources that result from recycling of the items above due to no real manufacturing that requires the resources. So the real question is how do you "Create a Recycling Industry" in the 3rd world/developing countries that is cost effective and provides a high enough return on investment to get capitalists interested?

john scarbrough:

yes what an ecological problem, arming every child with the ability to communicate, think and learn. Why, no pundit or politician would be safe, every child would develop their own values and make their own distinct contributions to the civilization and to their own communities. what a waste it would be to have minds in control of themselves...


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