Feature

Versus: Mac vs PC

G Magazine

We each have a personal preference, but which computer platform is better for the planet?

versus-computers

Information and communication technology is responsible for 2.7 per cent of total carbon emissions in Australia, and that’s not including transport or the energy used to manufacture the devices.

Credit: iStockphoto

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The tech rivalry between Mac and PC is often framed as a fight between form and function. Apple products feature sleek design and slick branding, but critics say they’re all style over substance. Macs might have a certain minimalist chic, but can they really compete with the value – and sheer variety – of their PC counterparts?

But we’d like to know if there’s more to the debate than comparing processing speed and the elusive coolness factor. Perhaps we should base our decision to buy a personal computer on a different set of stats altogether? Information and communication technology is responsible for 2.7 per cent of total carbon emissions in Australia, and that’s not including transport or the energy used to manufacture the devices in the first place.

Australians have an average of almost two PCs, monitors or games consoles per household, and with eight million households in the country, the result of all these digital distractions is a colossal e-waste problem. So, if you’re looking for a green computer, is a Mac or PC the better choice?

Powering up

“Computers are extremely dirty devices because they are so complex,” says Graeme Philipson, research director at Connection Research, an analysis company with a focus on sustainable and digital technologies. A single laptop or desktop computer may require many different types of raw materials, including potentially toxic metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead, as well as brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which can affect learning and memory function.

Unlike many household appliances, computers can suck up more energy in the manufacturing phase than over their entire lifetime of use. A desktop computer consumes more than 80 per cent of its total energy in production, according to a 2004 study from the United Nations University, based in Tokyo. Even a relatively lightweight laptop, such as Dell’s Latitude E6400, creates almost as much greenhouse gas in manufacture as it does in use. The 15-inch Macbook Pro, which has an aluminium casing, creates 63 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions during production. The biggest impact seems to be obtaining the raw parts – Toshiba estimates over 70 per cent of the carbon emissions for its mobile notebook PCs come from procuring materials. According to Dell, the motherboard, display, chassis and battery are the most carbon-intensive parts to produce in a standard business laptop.

Loading and sending

After assembly, the finished product must then be distributed to customers around the world. Computers come to Australia by plane or ship, and the difference in greenhouse gases between these two modes of transport is startling. Dell estimates air freight has a carbon footprint about 164 times higher than shipping. Apple claims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by fitting more boxes on each pallet, but could not provide a breakdown of how many pallets come by plane or ship. Mark Whittard, managing director of Toshiba Australia, says the company has also reduced packaging size, adding that Toshiba sends over 60 per cent of mobile PC notebooks to Australia by sea freight, averaged out over the year. HP and Acer use both modes of transport, but neither could provide a percentage breakdown before G published this article..

If you have the option, choose shipping – it goes a long way towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In use

Electronics companies tend to focus on efficiency, so all the major manufacturers have laptop and desktop computers that meet the US EPA’s latest Energy Star standard. According to the most recent Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, all Apple laptop and desktop computers are Energy Star compliant, whereas some PC companies have many laptops that meet the standard, but fewer desktops. In any case, the importance of energy efficiency is overstated because you can reduce carbon emissions yourself by using power management software or switching to GreenPower.

Shutting down

The Australian Tax Office estimates laptops have a lifespan of only three years, and all those obsolete computers are piling up. Only around 10 per cent of discarded e-waste in Australia is recovered and processed. At the time of going to print, legislation to address this problem (the National Television and Computer Product Stewardship Scheme) was under consideration by the Federal Parliament. Many computer manufacturers already have voluntary ‘take back’ schemes or offer other forms of recycling. Apple, for example, will recycle your old computer and monitor free of charge when you buy a new Mac at certain stores. Toshiba accepts old Toshiba laptops, including batteries, for recycling at service centres around the country. Some companies also have targets for recycled content – Samsung aims to use 25 per cent recycled plastic content by 2025.

Greenpeace gives Apple a higher (more sustainable) e-waste ranking than Acer and Fujitsu, the same as Toshiba, HP and Panasonic, but lower than Lenovo, Sony, Dell and Samsung.

The verdict

As far as the environment is concerned, there isn’t a major difference between Mac and PC, says Philipson from Connection Research. “They’re both computers. They use the same chips. They’re manufactured in a similar way. They have different but functionally equivalent operating systems. There’s no inherent reason why the Macintosh or PC architecture should be better or worse. It comes down to company policy.”

Apple has been criticised for its environmental policy in the past, especially for a lack of transparency. But after CEO Steve Jobs announced a policy shift in 2007, the company has made significant improvements. According to Greenpeace, Apple was the first laptop manufacturer to stop using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and BFRs. That doesn’t mean Apple has gone green and ethical to the core; in 2010 the company rejected a resolution for the publication of a sustainability report, and it’s since come under fire for harsh working conditions in Chinese factories where their products are made.

But you could argue that some of the smaller PC companies might operate factories with similar conditions and only escape scrutiny because they don’t receive the same level of media exposure. This highlights the problem of comparing a single – and highly visible – company with an entire category.

“There can be no one assessment for all PCs,” says Pete Foster from The Green IT Report, which publishes industry news site www.thegreenitreview.com. “Macs will be better than some PCs and some PCs will be better than Macs.”

If we compare individual companies, however, the major PC manufacturers still come out on top. Greenpeace gives HP and Samsung a higher rating than Apple. Foster ranks HP and Dell above Apple. The key issue is manufacturing, so if you’re looking for a new computer with a low eco-impact, research how it’s made, what materials are used and how much carbon dioxide is produced in the process.