School Chromebooks create huge amounts of e-waste

In early 2020, as the Covid pandemic brought classrooms online, school districts had to buy affordable laptops en masse to send home with their students. Quite a few turned to Chromebooks.

Three years later, the US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund concludes in a new report called Chromebook gradient that many of these batches are already starting to break. That may cost districts money; PIRG estimates that “doubling the lifespan of Chromebooks could result in taxpayer savings of $1.8 billion.” It also creates quite a bit of e-waste.

One of the major issues is repairability. Chromebooks are, on average, more difficult to upgrade and repair than Windows laptops. That’s in part, the PIRG found, because the replacement parts are much harder to come by — especially for elements like screens, hinges and keyboards that are particularly vulnerable to the drops, shocks, pushes and spills that come from school use.

For example, researchers found that nearly half of replacement keyboards for Acer Chromebooks online were out of stock, and more than a third cost $89.99 or more, which is nearly half the cost of a typical $200 Chromebook. Some IT departments, PIRG reports, have resorted to buying additional batches of Chromebooks just for their components.

“These high costs may lead schools to rethink Chromebooks as a cost-cutting strategy,” the report reads.

It seems that the struggle outlined by the IT departments PIRG spoke to is not universal. Acer, in a statement to The edge by spokesperson Kelly Odle, said schools it partners with primarily obtain spare parts directly from the Premier Support Team, and that the average price of keyboards purchased through that team is less than $25. “Acer supports our customers with spare parts for our education accounts for a minimum of 4 years within the warranty. Our spare parts availability was 95% within 24 hours of placing the order,” the statement read.

“Acer designs our Chromebooks specifically for education accounts with robustness in key areas, including the hinges that extend the length of the LCD construction for increased rigidity to prevent bending and cracking of the LCD panels, honeycomb design in our plastics to make them more robust , keys that are difficult to remove, and keyboards that are easy to repair,” added Odle.

“These high costs may lead schools to rethink Chromebooks as a cost-cutting strategy.”

Chromebook gradient also discusses the expiration date of the Chromebook’s automatic update – something users have been complaining about for years.

While Google currently guarantees automatic updates for Chromebooks for eight years, that period officially begins when Google certifies a Chromebook — not when a school actually gets their hands on that Chromebook, which is a process that can take much longer. By the time a school has successfully purchased, received, set up and deployed a fleet of student Chromebooks, it’s common for the expiration date to be “four to five years away,” the report said.

“If the software expires just a few years after using a device, schools are left with boxes full of computers with working components that end up as electronic waste, and the need to buy even more Chromebooks,” the newspaper warns.

Those short expiration dates also make it harder for schools to resell their devices, meaning some have to pay even more to recycle them.

The HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook is one of the flashiest Chromebook releases this year so far.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales/MinRegion

PIRG estimates that “doubling the lifespan of the 31.8 million Chromebooks sold in 2020 could reduce emissions by 4.6 million tons of CO2e, equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road for a year. ” The group recommends that Google scrap the Automatic Update Expiration system, which its OEM partners produce “minimum 10% overstock” of replacement parts and better standardize components across all Chromebook models.

It also suggests that Google should make it easier to unregister Chromebooks for remote management and install third-party operating systems (Linux, namely), making post-AUE resale more attractive. “Not only is the choice of operating system a consumer right, it would extend the resale and reuse value of the laptop by years,” the authors write.

Google spokesperson Peter Du reached out for comment for the following statement The edge:

“We’ve worked closely with our hardware partners to increase the number of years of guaranteed support Chromebooks receive, and since 2020 we’ve now offered automatic updates for eight years, up from five years in 2016. We’re also always working with our device manufacturing partners to keep more and more devices in build different segments with post-consumer recycled and certified materials that are more repairable, and use manufacturing processes over time that reduce emissions.

Regular Chromebook software updates add new features and improve device security every four weeks, allowing us to continuously iterate 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 use. deliver updates. ”

The PIRG report echoes the drum I’ve been beating for years in reviews of “eco” laptops: by far the most environmentally friendly gadgets are those that last.

Update May 1, 12:29 ET: Acer statement added.

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