Electronics: Why Your Mac May Not Be as Clean As You Think

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If, like me, you’ve contracted an unbreakable addiction to Apple products, then this really is the most wonderful time of the year. As always, Steve Jobs has timed the release of some new products for the holiday season, including the ultra-light MacBook Air which—full disclosure—I’m typing this blog post on right now. Add that to the millions of iPads and iPhones and iPods that will be appearing under trees this December 25, and you can imagine 2010 is likely to be a very Apple Christmas. A new survey from found that the iPad in particular helped drive computer hardware sales to rise 25% this holiday season over last.

The environmental impact of all those gifts might be bigger than you’d think, however. It’s easy to imagine that computers and other consumer electronics are clean and wasteless—especially minimalists Macs. But it turns out it takes a lot of energy to manufacture them—especially computers that are made of lightweight aluminum, like this MacBook Air. Manufacturing aluminum is extremely energy-intensive, and as laptops shift from plastic casing to aluminum, their carbon footprints expand. The Belgrave Trust, a New York-based social enterprise that calculates carbon footprints and offers carbon offsets, estimates that aluminum-cased laptops like MacBook Air can cause 42% more greenhouse gas emissions in their manufacture than identical plastic-cased versions. In fact, Belgrave estimates that if Apple sells 10 million aluminum-cased items as expected this holiday season, the company would have a bigger carbon footprint from those products alone than a major airline like British Airways or Air France. “It’s a lot more energy-intensive than you imagine,” says Nick Baily, Belgrave Trust’s founder. “The emissions really add up over time. People don’t realize that computers are responsible for around 5% of the world’s carbon emissions.”

As it happens, Belgrave Trust has a solution. For $10, you can buy carbon credits from Belgrave that will offset the footprint of your new laptop. (Belgrave will give you a sticker so everyone will know that not only did you get a new laptop this holiday seasons, you even made it green.) The $10 credits offset 0.69 tons of CO2e—Belgrave based the figures on the lifecycle of a new laptop, plus about four years of use. The money goes to fund Belgrave’s portfolio of carbon offset projects, including a massive but energy-efficient zinc plant in India.

Obviously, carbon offsets are imperfect by their nature, but it is better than nothing. And Apple does deserve some credit for making its newer computers greener—as its computers and other products get smaller and smaller, they use less material, and while aluminum is energy-intensive to manufacture, it is more easily recycled than plastic. The MacBook Air is energy-efficient, winning Energy Star 5.0 qualifications from the government. There’s always room for improvement, though—in Greenpeace’s most recent guide to green electronics, Apple fell right in the middle.

The lesson here should be that even products that seem as clean and minimal as an iPad or an iPhone require a lot of energy to make—and right now, that usually means burning carbon. There’s also the issue of e-waste—as we churn through our electronics, out obsolete items often end up in landfills in the developing world, where the poor process them with little protection, poisoning the environment and themselves. Carbon offsets or not, the greenest computer is always going to be the one you don’t buy.

More from TIME on e-waste:

E-Waste Not

Your Laptop’s Dirty Secret