Jen van der Meer

What’s The Eco Impact of an iPad

Published: (Updated: ) in NYU ITP, Product Ecology, by .

Op-Chart in the NYTimes on the weekend of the iPad launch – a lifecycle analysis of the iPad, timely for discussing the core element of analysis in LCA – the functional unit.

Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence and Gregory Norris, LCA software expert at Harvard authored the “chart” comparing e-readers. The authors compared the Kindle, the iPad and a book by determine the functional unit as the reading of 1 book, and measured the “payback” of how many books one would have to read on an e-reader to = the ecological impact of a regular non electronic book.

With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.

All in all, the most ecologically virtuous way to read a book starts by walking to your local library.

As an avid library user, even I find this conclusion smug. It makes me want to stop going to the library, and buy an iPad. The students also felt that this statement encouraged people even further to make the jump and buy an eReader, because 40-50 books seemed like a reasonable goal for someone buying such a device.

In class however we determined several other “functional units” of the iPad that were not analyzed in the LCA:

_Use of a bazillion non e-book apps.
_Listening to music.
_Watching hulu. Nope can’t do that because of the flash problem.
_Making art with digital fingerpainting apps.

And then we also identified more emotional/cultural uses that we would never be able to measure in an LCA:

_Showing off/bling status/class status.
_Give us ideas future world-saving (or at least world-distracting) apps we will build.
_Provide ideas for making SPIMES that would be materialized only on the iPad screen.
_Acquiring something to put in our Gucci bag designed specifically for the iPad.

And all of this points right to the limits of LCA. If you believe the device has the potential to change the culture for the better in the future (only 1/3 of students believed so), how do you account for the ecological impacts today?