Like a System the Government Would Develop

I’m looking to buy a new laptop computer. I’m probably going to buy a Dell. If I do, I’ll have more to say based on my previous posts. For now, though, I’m fascinated by this:

From now on, whenever you buy a Dell PC, you’ll have the option of donating a few dollars toward the planting of new trees. And it’s not for nothing. A PC requires electricity, and generating electricity typically involves spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth makes pretty clear, this is a big problem, especially for people living at sea level. New trees can offset some of those carbon emissions.

I’ll read more about the program when I get closer to my final decision to determine whether or not it’s a feel-good gimmick or a legitimate strategy. It’s probably a bit of both, and it’s only $2 for a laptop, so the harm is minimal. But I dismissed this connection immediately.

You might think that this is just another way for Dell to take your money, but the company’s putting your money to good use. The fee is a token one, to be sure, but it could change the way people think about consumer electronics. I see it the same way I see that check box on my tax return, the one that sends $3 from my yearly tax bill to the Federal Election Commission. I’m guessing that IRS check box represents the first time the average voter actually realizes that election campaigns are partially financed by the federal government. Likewise, the check box on Dell’s site may be the first time that the average PC buyer thinks about the environmental impact of all that Web surfing.

That $3 checkbox is a silly example of how government can step beyond what is legitimate. I won’t voluntarily pay (through the back door) any money to fund the nonsensical thinking that leads to McCain-Feingold. I’ll donate money only to candidates I think are worthy, which is why I’ve donated $0 in my life to political candidates. That $3 checkbox perpetuates the mistaken notions that 1) two parties are enough and 2) either one of them is competent to govern. Sorry, but I’m aware of how candidates and politicians treat citizens. If the Dell program is anything like that, I’ll keep my $2.

Further down, this:

In addition to taking a lead in carbon offsets, Dell has one of the best recycling programs in the industry. The company announced a free recycling program three years ago, and in June it took it a step farther. Today, you can send any Dell PC back to the company for recycling—without paying a penny. If you buy a new Dell, the company actually sends someone to pick up your old PC. Again, this is a free service, and your old PC doesn’t have to be a Dell. Right now, manufacturers such as HP and Apple charge anywhere from $13 to $30 to dispose of your old computer. That’s just enough disincentive to ensure that most of those systems will land in a landfill.

This is a huge problem—not just for users, but for businesses. Here at PC Magazine Labs, we’re in the process of phasing out the last of our old CRT monitors and replacing them with LCDs. CRT monitors contain a huge amount of toxic lead. We’re talking 8 pounds a pop, if you consider all the glass, frit, and solder in a big CRT. This isn’t something we want leaking into our water tables.

I agree that recycling, or at least proper disposal of old computers is important. Free is a great incentive. And businesses (and governments) are absolutely the place to make the biggest push because they buy and upgrade in bulk. But I’ve priced the laptop I want through Dell’s small business catalog. The recycling kit is $25. Maybe if you’re the purchasing manager for a Fortune 500 firm you don’t care because you know that your P.R. department will issue a press release explaining how wonderful your company is at caring about the environment. For me, as a small business owner, I can afford one $25 payment to recycle an old (Pentium I) desktop I still have. But a small business buying more computers with a limited budget might find that $25 per computer fee a lot more daunting. That seems obvious, as even I’ve balked at the $25 and will look into other methods.

If businesses are the most logical starting place, and I think they are, the goal for Dell, HP, and Apple is on target, but the incentive needs work.