Are Chromebooks Really The Solution?

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By Taylor Kane, Staff Writer

Three years ago, if the bag of a middle or high school student opened and overturned, stacks on stacks of paper would spill out. Now, where crumpled pages and beaten folders once were, there is something slimmer: a laptop. Districts in New York like Highland, Poughkeepsie, NYC, and Kingston have joined the wave of paperless schooling, and New Paltz is no different. 

Displayed proudly on our district’s website is the phrase “Go Paperless !!,” but could it be that paper was a lesser evil? Laptops are not without their environmental impact and it could be argued that they are less effective in terms of learning, which begs the question: have our efforts to go green gone wrong? Ultimately, no, it has not. Laptops, while costly, are more environmentally friendly in the long term because of their extended lifetime. 

Leading countries in lithium production and reserves || Volkswagenag

Laptop batteries, like most other rechargeable batteries, are made primarily of lithium, a non-renewable metal. Predominantly mined in Australia, Chile, and China, lithium has quickly risen to be one of the most desired materials in the new “green” world. In our effort to leave the bulk use of paper behind, we’ve grown increasingly reliant on the metal, raising the price of its mining from $6,000/ton in 2020 to more than $78,000 in just two years. Second, lithium is detrimental to the environment with its mining resulting in biodiversity loss, water shortage, and a carbon emission (measured in CO2e) of 15 tons CO2e for every ton mined. Simply, one ton of lithium costs $78,000 and 15 tons of carbon directly into our atmosphere. The price and carbon footprint of a ton of paper rests at $250 and 28kg CO2e (0.031 of a ton).

Despite the cost of the batteries, lithium-ion battery-powered devices are becoming increasingly popular. Some of them have even become faces of environmentalism, such as Teslas and laptops. Chromebooks are no different; compared to other laptops, however, their batteries require less lithium, 1.8g compared to the average of 4.8g. In addition to their smaller batteries, Chromebooks have a lower overall CO2e than average laptops, only emitting 221kg CO2e rather than 331kg. Looking solely at the initial cost and carbon footprint of the creation of a Chromebook versus that of paper, the Chromebook is unfavorable. However, once longevity is considered, paper may be even worse.

Footprints of different aspects of Chromebook production || Lenovo

A singular school, on average, uses 320,000 sheets of paper per year, equal to approximately 12,700kg CO23. Unlike paper, which is highly disposable and often left unused and discarded, a single Chromebook has an average lifetime of 5-8 years, meaning it could last a student the entirety of middle and high school or live to serve multiple students. Of the Chromebooks disposed of due to irreparability, the ‘e-waste’, a term for electronic products that have reached the end of their lifetimes, is recycled by the technology department here at the high school, but it is uncommon that these measures must be taken. 

According to Mike Wikke, a staff member of the technology department, “a lot [of Chromebooks] do get damaged” by the students, but “a lot do get fixed. I’d say a small percentage of them can’t be fixed.” 

Chromebooks that are damaged are repaired by the technology department and returned to the students, effectively pseudo-recycling the device. These efforts to preserve laptops and reuse them to reduce waste are what must be done to make laptop-based schooling eco-friendly, only on a larger scale.

Due to the magnitude of carbon emissions created by lithium mining, the devices themselves are not, by definition, eco-friendly. To equalize the high footprint of production, there needs to be an increase in rates of e-waste recycling or ‘e-cycling.’ As it is now, only 17.4% of the world’s e-waste is collected and recycled. An increase in this number would result in a sharp decrease in the demand for lithium and the connected Co2e. 

E-Waste recycling by country || TheRoundup

The recycling process offsets 50% of a laptop’s carbon emissions, dropping a Chromebook’s carbon footprint to approximately 110kg CO2e. If the same Chromebook were recycled again, 75% of the initial CO2e would be offset. By doing this, the resources in the Chromebooks are made repeatedly usable, thus decreasing mining and avoiding potential carbon emissions.

To determine the ‘greener’ option longevity must be considered. A good amount of the harm done to the environment with resource extraction is the rate at which we do it. While paper is usable only a handful of times before it is inevitably disposed of and then replaced (costing more resources), Chromebooks are continuously applicable, which should be taken advantage of by students and teachers alike. 

Kyle Eckert, another staff member of the technology department, says implementation is crucial. The more Chromebooks are utilized in lesson plans and a student’s usage, the more green they become. 

Less effective would be “a lesson where it [the Chromebook] is staying in the kid’s backpack the whole time and not being used,” Eckert says, but “if there’s heavy implementation by the teachers… you’re actually saving hundreds of sheets of paper.” 

The more we dedicate ourselves to taking advantage of the devices we’ve been supplied with, the more environmentally friendly we make ourselves and our school.

The more we dedicate ourselves to taking advantage of the devices we’ve been supplied with, the more environmentally friendly we make ourselves and our school. There is ample room for further improvement of the environmental friendliness of any technology, such as the future usage of renewable energy, such as solar power. While lithium is admittedly unpreferable for continuous use, given that there are limited amounts of it, it could become a stepping stone towards greener energy sources and technology. 

Admittedly, even if Chromebooks were to become recycled en masse and eventually powered by a renewable metal instead of lithium, there still lies the problem of impracticality in some educational aspects. The originality of work is one. By transitioning schooling to Chromebooks, online sources, databases, and even AI that can write work for the students have been made readily available. This presents a flaw for Chromebooks: they could negatively impact integrity. 

As Eckert puts it, if “you want your kid to write a paper or write an essay, one of the really only ways to prove that they’re not using something like that [AI] is to sit them down in the class and have them use pen and paper.” 

Also is the issue of Chromebooks being potentially less educationally effective. Cain Osarczuk, a senior, believes that students are “more inclined to find distractions on a chromebook versus paper,” which then results in students paying less attention and learning less. Some students, like Kylie Ayala, another senior, find that Chromebooks simply don’t encourage the same knowledge retention as paper even if they do actively pay attention.

Students making use of their Chromebooks in the library

“For me, personally, I believe it [Chromebooks] stifled my learning,” Ayala says. “I learn better by writing notes down and being able to memorize it that way and the Chromebook isn’t really sufficient in doing that for me.” 

Dr. Carrie B. Fischer, a psychology professor at Winona State University, held a study in 2008 focused on the correlation between the presence of laptops in the classroom and lower final class grades, the results of which support Osarczuk and Ayala’s personal findings. Fried found that “higher levels of laptop use were associated with lower student-reported levels of attention, lecture clarity, and understanding of the course material” (Fried), which explains the difficulty some students have with Chromebook learning. 

This negative relationship makes it important to consider the possibility that Chromebooks are not being implemented at the level Eckert recommends they be to reach their potential not out of unwillingness but rather of it being ineffective for students.

Electronic devices in the classroom correlate with learning interference || ScienceDirect

To answer my own question: No, our efforts to go green haven’t ‘gone wrong.’ What the greenest method is all comes down to which is going to be most efficiently and effectively implemented by its user; a notebook in the hands of a paper-user is more ecofriendly than a laptop that won’t be used, and vice versa. 

Yes, lithium mining for laptops is carbon-heavy and damaging to the environment, and should be found a substitute for sooner rather than later, but the longevity of laptops helps to alleviate that pressure, especially in comparison to the sheer rate that we go through paper. Paper, while rapidly produced, is also easier to recycle and reuse. Both mediums have their benefits and flaws, leaving us, the users, to determine which is going to be greenest as applied to our own lifestyles. 

In the circumstance of our high school, students are not at liberty to choose whether they will be paper-based or a laptop user, though in the future, it may be beneficial to allow students the ability to choose between accepting a school laptop or not. In the meantime, if you’re looking for something you can do yourself to make your school life a little greener, stick to what you know you’ll use.  There’s no shame in a pencil and paper if you’re making the most of it.