I am typing this blog post on Green Action Centre’s newest computer. A fancy fast machine that fulfills the latest iteration of Moore’s law – the idea that processing power will double every few years. I had qualms about ordering a new computer, considering all the e-waste that the industry produces. However, for the sake of my work productivity (the environment benefits from that productivity, I assure myself), I gave in. Overall, I am pretty happy with its performance so far.

What I am less pleased with is the mountain of garbage the computer came with. As expected, the machine comes packed in large pieces of expanded polystyrene, (commonly known as Styrofoam), a substance which in theory is recyclable but has no known uses in Manitoba. Even though this product does not degrade for hundreds of years, at least it has a purpose by protecting the fragile components – I was not expecting my computer to be packed in hay. Still, these pieces are too large to fit in our office garbage can, which we only empty once a week in any case.

What surprised me more was that alongside the computer the retailer gave me a box overflowing with other boxes. Inside each box was more packaging – plastic shrink wrap, clam shells, cardboard casings, several empty low density polyethylene bags, and sundry bits and pieces. Sorting through this large box of trash, I was expecting that there would be something useful inside. Instead, like some giant babushka doll of unsustainability, it was only more garbage packed into garbage.

My first thought, was why are they burdening me with this box of trash? Could not my retailer have disposed of this themselves? I suppose that the retailer feels that this is the only way to demonstrate their product was assembled from new and genuine components. In the opaque world of commodity consumption, we must often rely on talismans such as packing boxes to judge the caliber of goods whose qualities we cannot directly perceive. I have no idea what a AMD FX 4300 core is, but its brightly coloured box assures me I will “enjoy the ultimate HD supercharged experience”. I can’t wait!

There is something wrong with our system of producer responsibility. According to the government of Manitoba’s website:

The aim of stewardship is to find better methods of diverting or reducing the amount of designated materials from landfill sites and encouraging product producers to consider design-for the-environment changes to manufacturing processes. This is achieved by bringing greater levels of responsibility to the producers and users of the materials and products.

Design for the environment should at minimum mean reduction of packaging to a quantity which is reflective of the requirements for safe storage and transport of the product. Use of excess packaging for the purpose of advertizing should be discouraged, especially for component parts that are not for direct consumer use.

Manitoba has been working on extended producer responsibility since 1990, before the launch of the world’s first website. Now, more than 20 years later, I sift through a pile of garbage looking for the instruction manual for my new computer.