Microsoft's long anticipated launch of Windows Vista was somewhat overshadowed today by accusations the new operating system could result in "massive" environmental damage.
The accusations were led by Tony Roberts, chief executive of UK charity Computer Aid International, which provides refurbished second hand computers to education and social projects in the UK and developing world economies. He argued that the stiff hardware requirements needed to run Vista will force many users to upgrade or replace existing PCs that are still perfectly effective.
According to Computer Aid International as many as 10 million PCs could be discarded in the UK over next two years as they are replaced by Vista compatible hardware.
Roberts said that this glut of unwanted IT kit could lead to an "environmental disaster", noting that with the new WEEE legislation governing the environmentally sound disposal of IT kit not coming into effect until July many of these unwanted machines could find their way to landfill sites.
"If you imagine each of these 10 million machines contains lead and many other toxic chemicals then we really are storing up an environmental disaster," he said. "It is essential all this e-waste is properly disposed of through licensed schemes."
He added that even where firms do dispose of their kit responsibly through approved schemes millions of machines that could otherwise continue to be of use will be broken up. "Given the huge amount of resources that go into manufacturing a PC it is vital that we use it for its full natural life," he argued. "Re-use is the only way to achieve that and PCs donated to us tend to last another three or four years after they were initially discarded."
Computer Aid's environmental concerns were endorsed by lobby group Greenpeace International which claimed that Microsoft had not shown enough consideration of the environmental impact of its product.
"There has been one study that suggested that only 6 percent of business PCs in North America were ready for the premium version of Vista," said Zeina Alhajj, campaigner at Greenpeace. "That means masses of IT kit is going to be discarded and in some cases dumped."
Alhajj argued that the IT industry as a whole had a responsibility to address this "chain of obsolescence" and make it easier to upgrade the parts of a machine needed to run new versions of software.
She added that until vendors resolved this issue corporate customers had an environmental responsibility to ask themselves if a system upgrade is genuinely necessary. "It might be that your design team does need the new functionality [offered by Vista], but you have to ask if your secretary, for example, really needs an upgrade to Vista," she said.
Where upgrades are unavoidable both Greenpeace and Computer Aid International recommended firms should donate unwanted equipment to charities and other organisations that will reuse the kit.
"Choosing re-use over recycling allows IT equipment to be used until the real end of its productive life, enabling individuals and businesses to reduce their environmental footprint," said Roberts. "Only when a piece of IT equipment is no longer of use should it be broken down."
He also argued that future versions of Windows and other software packages should show greater consideration for the existing hardware environment. "I look forward to a time when software upgrades don't compel us to throw away perfectly good computers," he said.
Microsoft was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press.
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