Thursday, February 8, 2007

Vista and toxic e-waste

I wanted to be one of the countless gawkers in green or blue attire at last weekend’s Microsoft Vista launch at the seaside mall but when I imagined the number of people there who spoke computerese I changed my mind. Besides, I was not buying the new program. Not yet. I mean, we’d soon have to have it if there is no other one to choose.

Although I’m no techie, I’ve been reading up on Vista and what it can do for me. Microsoft’s Bill Gates himself said Vista took some five years to perfect so it must be awesome. But some computer experts say it still would need some fine-tuning once it gets out there and people start using it.

So what does this mean for all of us? Vista ruling our world vista, our cultural and information landscape, the way we do things, think, create and communicate? But what about our “hard copy” vista, that is, our terra firma, the hard ground on which we walk?

Greepeace has issued a warning on the e-waste, the e-junk, the e-garbage that Vista will generate. Greenpeace doesn’t mean the digital junk in your computer files and e-mail, it is referring to the material electronic junk that will pile up on the ground. Because every trying-hard Who’s Who in the computer world would want to shuck the old PC for a new computer bundle that comes with Vista plus plus.

Upgrading the old PC is too jurassic for some. Like, why go through the cumbersome upgrade when, for just a few bucks more, you get a whole new bundle?

But wait. Bill gates and Microsoft didn’t tell us what to do with the old, where to throw them.

I share Greepeace’s concern that Vista, Microsoft’s newest operating system, could trigger a deluge of e-waste in developing countries. With Vista, Greepeace says, more companies and individuals may feel the need to replace their computers sooner as these might become incompatible with the new OS. The result, Greenpeace warns, would be “massive volumes of computer scrap in dirty re-cycling yards and dumpsites in the Philippines, Thailand and other Asian countries where most of the world’s e-waste dumps are located.”

Some months ago I watched a TV documentary on a remote place in China that used to be a rustic, rural destination. Now it is the destination of dead computers, a veritable junkyard of toxic and harmful electronic innards and skeletons. It draws thousands of scavengers who salvage parts that could still be used or recycled. It was a shocking sight, a terrible site, a cemetery.

Recycling is good, but should it be this way?

“With Vista,” Greenpeace’s Beau Banconguis warns, “Microsoft could effectively hasten the obsolescence of half of the world’s PCs, especially in the absence of fully functioning global take-back systems for PCs.” Banconguis is with Greenpeace Asia’s campaign against toxic waste. She adds that companies would feel the need to upgrade their PCs and when they do, the world is not prepared for the massive e-waste the upgrade will generate.

I myself did try to run a free on-line test on my PC to see if it was Vista-ready. I was told I needed something to get the test done. I was just testing and I was already being told by this on-line program that there was some tweaking to do. Forget it, I said. Was I being told that tweaking and upgrading is hard to do, that I should junk my old hard/software and go get a new package?

Greenpeace says that current environmental policies of computer companies are not enough to provide an effective solution to the growing mountains of toxic electronic waste from computer components. Microsoft, Geenpeace emphasizes, should have factored in these consequences and should have laid out mitigating measures to minimize the problem of obsolescence, before they started introducing new innovations. Innovation should not translate into more pollution, Banconguis adds.

Multi-billionaire Gates was beaming in snowy Davos where the world’s Who’s Who in economics were recently gathered, where the prefix eco- also became eco- of ecology, what with global warming and climate change high on the agenda of the world’s economic movers. Did he say anything about e-waste?

Greenpeace cites a study conducted by SoftChoice Corporation that states that 50 percent of the current breed of PCs are “below Window’s Vista’s basic system requirements” while 94 percent are not equipped to run on Window’s Vista Premium edition.”

Greepeace has been campaigning so that PC and mobile phones manufacturers would phase out toxic substances from their products and place take-back mechanisms for their products when they reach the end of their lives. They should design their products in a way that they could be easily upgraded, disassembled and recycled.

When I wrote in this column about an NGO that takes e-waste for recycling, not a few wrote to ask where and how. (Contact Philippines Business for the Environment.) Some years ago I delivered a car trunk full of dead electronic gadgets to a vocational school for its students to study and make something of.

The useful lives of electronic equipment could be longer if only manufacturers would not plan their obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is an immoral marketing strategy. The digital camera that I bought in 2001 is now obsolete, Its new battery pack and memory card that I recently bought (an upgrade that I regret) are no longer compatible with the latest hi-resolution model (which is half the price of my 2001 camera).

We are in a throw-away world and we are the worse for it. The last time I tasted the word vista’s real meaning was when I was meditating on lines from Francis Thompson. “Up vista-ed hopes I sped;/ and shot, precipitated/ Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears…”