Should laptops expire? Campaign aims to make electronics last longer to save money and the planet – OCRegister

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With summer vacation in full swing, many Southern California school districts are already sprucing up campuses in preparation for the next school year.
For some districts, that revamp includes tossing piles of Chromebooks with fully functioning hardware into the trash or recycling bin.
The Google laptops are popular with schools and families due their simplicity and low price. But Chromebooks also come with a built-in “death date,” when software support ends. And once that date hits, the devices no longer receive updates needed to, say, run security programs or access state testing websites, which essentially renders them useless for students and teachers.
More than a dozen Chromebook models will hit their death dates in three months unless Google voluntarily steps in to extend them. The end also is nigh for tons of Chromebooks that school districts shelled out millions for in 2020, when they were scrambling to help students go fully remote during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It creates an incredible amount of electronic waste, which is now the fastest-growing waste stream in the entire world. And it’s incredibly costly to schools,” said Sander Kushen of Laguna Beach, who’s working with the California chapter of the nonprofit Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, on a campaign to extend the life of all Chromebooks.
The campaign is part of a much larger, multipronged effort by PIRG and other environmental groups that hope to reduce electronic waste.
Humans generate more than 50 million tons of e-waste each year, according to the latest report on the topic from the United Nations, and just 17% of it gets recycled. The report notes that in recent years the volume of e-waste has been skyrocketing while the percentage that gets recycled has actually dropped.
We’re not great at recycling even when it involves materials our local trash collector will pick up curbside each week. But recycling e-waste is more complicated, since cell phones and microwaves and TVs often contain hazardous materials, such as mercury and lead, that require special disposal.
The most significant electronics-related climate harm happens long before products end up in landfills or incinerators anyway, Kushen noted. Many contain precious metals that come from environmentally damaging mining efforts. And they often are assembled and shipped around the world before ending up in, say, a classroom in Riverside.
That’s why, even though a Google spokesperson noted via email that the company is working to use more recycled materials and reduce emissions in manufacturing over time, environmental advocates insist the focus has to be on extending the life of existing electronics, and on getting consumers to stop treating those products as disposable.
“Keeping our stuff around for longer is the most sustainable electronics choice we can make,” said Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of sustainability for iFixit, which offers free guides and forums to help people repair devices.
And Chromebooks, in many ways, have become the poster child for this effort.
To keep Google’s proprietary operating system running smoothly, the company automatically sends out software updates for Chromebooks every four to six weeks to add new features and improve device security.
When Google first introduced the affordable devices, in 2011, those updates would stop after just three years. The company has “worked diligently” to extend the window for that Automatic Update Expiration several times as newer models hit the market, a spokesperson pointed out in an emailed statement, with the latest Chromebooks now guaranteed support for eight years.
However, the clock for Chromebook’s death date starts when the laptops are made rather than when they’re purchased. That means customers might unwittingly buy devices that have been sitting on virtual shelves for some time and are set to “expire” much sooner — particularly if they’re buying used or refurbished laptops. Some Chromebooks now listed for sale are set to expire in just a few months, Kushen pointed out. And among the models in use, he noted, “the average (death) date is only four years away according to Google’s own website.”
That’s in line with data from San Bernardino City Unified School District, which has distributed more than 40,000 Chromebooks to students. A batch of those devices will no longer receive updates in June 2024, according to district spokesperson Maria Garcia.
“We are indeed concerned about the expiration date of these devices,” Garcia said, with a significant financial impact expected as the district rolls out a plan to replace those devices over the coming school year.
A number of Chromebooks also are reaching the end of their life in Capistrano Unified School District, according to spokesperson Ryan Burris. He said the district, the largest in Orange County, is careful to never buy devices that are close to their death dates. Still, he said the district has budgeted $4.2 million in the next school year to buy new Chromebooks, pay employees to repair them and otherwise support that program.
By 2030, Torrance Unified School District will see more than 20,000 Chromebooks expire, according to district spokesperson Sara Myers. They’re replacing those devices in a rolling pattern over time, so the district won’t feel the financial hit all at once.
With such a big wave of expiring Chromebooks looming, at a time when schools are struggling with issues such as teacher shortages and declining enrollment, Kushen said PIRG wants to see Google step up and voluntarily extend the death date window on existing models for several more years.
It’s been done before. In fall 2019, for example, the company added a year or more to device expiration dates for many models already on the market.
Google said in its emailed statement that they send updates for older devices to “continue to function in a secure and reliable manner until their hardware limitations make it extremely difficult to provide updates.”
But Kushen said his team has talked with technicians who are skeptical about fixed expiration dates for all Chromebook models. He cited an interview with Justin Millman, a repair technician who estimates he services 5,000 devices for schools a month. Millman told them “the hardware hasn’t changed all that much in seven years” and called the fixed death dates “arbitrary.”
If Google doubled the software support window for its laptops sold in California in 2020, ensuring they’d receive updates through 2030, the PIRG report estimates the reduction in e-waste would be equivalent to taking 113,000 gas-powered cars off the road for a year and could save districts $225 million.
It also would be a significant hit to Google’s bottom line. Advocates still are hoping to use public pressure to convince Google to extend the dates voluntarily, noting the company’s environmental pledges and that Chromebook sales shot up 287% in the fourth quarter of 2020 vs. the same time the year before. Kushen said they also are discussing legislation that would require manufacturers of all sorts of electronic devices to stop rendering their products useless from a software standpoint while their hardware is still viable.
But some local school districts are skeptical about the idea that Google doubling the support window for Chromebooks would be as dramatic as PIRG’s report says. A reason for that, they say, is that it’s not practical to expect student computers to last that long.
In San Bernardino, for example, Garcia said that while the district plans for their Chromebooks to receive software updates for six years, they already replace the devices about every five years to make sure students have access to up-to-date technology.
Other districts operate under similar plans.
“While the concept of potentially saving money and the environment could be a nice idea, as a district we find that after heavy use by students, a Chromebook that is four to five years of age has already seen a lot of wear and tear by the time they reach their Auto Update Expiration date, and we end up needing to replace them anyway,” said Myers with Torrance Unified.
“It is often more economical to upgrade them than try to repair them,” she said.
That’s true, Kushen said. And that fact illustrates another problem his group is working to address to save consumers money and help save the planet along the way.
Along with pushing Google and other manufacturers to extend software support for their products, PIRG also is backing Senate Bill 244, known as the Right to Repair Act. The law would make it easier and more affordable for consumers to repair hardware on electronic devices and appliances by giving consumers and repair shops access to the tools, parts and manuals needed to fix broken tech products.
“We shouldn’t have laptops that are cheaper to replace than repair, especially when the environmental costs are so high,” Kushen said.
Earlier this year, PIRG put out a report card grading cell phones and laptops on how “fixable” they were on a scale of one to 20. Chromebook models had an average parts availability rating of 3.3 out of 20, the report states, while non-Chromebook laptops averaged nine out of 20.
Their study found manufacturers sometimes make non-functional changes to Chromebook parts that make it impossible to swap them between models. All six manufacturers on the popular parts reseller edu-parts.com, for example, simultaneously made minor design tweaks to available options for the plastic edging that goes around the laptop screen.
Not every district reports issues with repairing Chromebooks. Capistrano Unified find its easier to repair the devices than traditional laptops and doesn’t have trouble finding parts at decent prices, Burris said.
But the Right to Repair Act drew support from Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the largest consumer of electronic devices for education in the state.
“When these devices break, it can be challenging to get the parts or information needed to fix them,” LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho wrote in a May letter backing the bill. “Limited repair options often mean that districts must choose between shipping devices to a manufacturer for repair or committing public resources for expensive and unnecessary device replacements.”
While Chromebooks take a lot of the heat, this legislation would open the door for repairs on all sorts of devices. Kushen’s group estimates that the average family could save $400 a year if they could repair rather than replace common electronics and appliances.
Of course, that’s only true if residents also do their part by committing to stop treating electronics as disposable products.
From a financial and environmental standpoint, Lucas Gutterman with PIRG said, “None of us can afford to stay on the disposability treadmill.”
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