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Schools are beginning to throw out expired Chromebooks, creating ‘piles of electronic waste,’ report says

A picture from Peter Mui showing a school's discarded Chromebooks.A picture from the report that the US PIRG says shows a “school system’s Chromebooks that are no longer usable.”

US PIRG/Peter Mui

  • Chromebooks create tons of e-waste when they expire, a US PIRG Education Fund report found.
  • Replacement parts for Chromebooks are difficult to find between different designs, per the report.
  • US PIRG is suggesting Google extend software support for Chromebooks to make them last longer.

Chromebooks, the budget laptops running Google software, are creating a lot of e-waste, according to a report from the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) Education Fund.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools around the US bought Chromebooks for students to aid in remote learning. Chromebooks are far cheaper than MacBooks or other high-end laptops. But, three years later, those Chromebooks are reaching their expiration dates, leading to more e-waste, according to the report.

An estimated 31 million Chromebooks sold around the world during the first year of the pandemic contributed to around 9 million tons of CO2 emissions, US PIRG found in its report. Doubling the software lifetime for Chromebooks would equal removing 900,000 cars from the road, and could save taxpayers $1.8 billion, the report suggests.

“Really, this is an industry-wide problem, and Google has the opportunity to lead on sustainability by making Chromebooks last longer,” Lucas Gutterman, the author of the report, told Insider.

A Google spokesperson told Insider the tech giant is working with its “hardware partners to increase the years of guaranteed support Chromebooks receive, and since 2020, we now provide eight years of automatic updates, up from five years in 2016. We also are always working with our device manufacturing partners to increasingly build devices across segments with post-consumer recycled and certified materials that are more repairable, and over time use manufacturing processes that reduce emissions.”

“Regular Chromebook software updates add new features and improve device security every four weeks, allowing us to continuously iterate on the software experience while ensuring that older devices continue to function in a secure and reliable manner until their hardware limitations make it extremely difficult to provide updates,” the spokesperson said.

The report also points to how finding replacement parts for Chromebooks from different manufacturers, like HP, can make repairs more difficult.

One example in the report points to how the bezels, or the plastic border around the screen, for the Dell 11 3100 Non-Touch Chromebook and the Dell 11 3110 Non-Touch Chromebook are designed differently, making them non-compatible.

Gutterman told Insider that the incompatibility is not sustainable for schools who need to repair parts across different models, because they have to spend more money buying new laptops. 

For a $250 Chromebook 11a, HP’s website only shows two available parts, the report found, but doesn’t include parts for repairs such as broken screens and keyboards. And accessories that are offered by HP are expensive, the report says, noting that “the combined price of these parts is more than half the cost of a new laptop.”

The report suggests Google, which makes the operating system for Chromebooks, make software support last longer so Chromebooks don’t have to be thrown out as soon, and called for Chromebook manufacturers like HP and Asus to make replacement parts easier to find to make more repairs possible.

HP nor Asus immediately responded to Insider’s request for comment.

“Moving forward, these companies should design Chromebooks to last by improving device durability, repairability and sustainability,” the US PIRG report says.

Gutterman told Insider that, “we just can’t afford to keep churning out technology at this rate, whether it’s Chromebooks or laptops or phones.”

“The consequences for getting this right are really big,” Gutterman said. “We have seen the amount of 1:1 programs, where schools give each student a laptop, is really on the rise, so balancing use and sustainability is key when you have this many devices given to students across the country.”

Read the original article on Business Insider