Chromebooks have been a popular option for schools due to their relatively cheap prices, but their short lifespans are causing environmental concerns. According to a recent report called Chromebook Churn by the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), many Chromebooks purchased just three years ago are already breaking, creating electronic waste and costing taxpayers money.
The report found that repairability is a key issue for Chromebooks in schools due to a lack of parts and expensive repairs. Some keyboard replacements for Acer Chromebooks were found to be out of stock, and others cost $90 each, nearly half the price of some models. Additionally, HP only stocked power cords and AC adapters for one model, but no other parts.
Furthermore, Chromebooks have built-in “death dates” after which software updates end. While Google provides eight years of software updates for Chromebooks from the date of release, support can expire in half that time for many schools that buy Chromebooks released several years before. This has led to an aggressive expiration of hardware that still has years of life left and makes it challenging for schools to resell their devices.
The PIRG organization suggests several solutions to this problem. They recommend that Google eliminate update expirations and that manufacturing partners produce a 10 percent overstock of replacement parts. Moreover, these parts should be more standardized across models, and consumers should be allowed to install alternative operating systems like Linux. The report suggests that doubling the lifespan of Chromebooks sold in 2020 could cut emissions by 4.6 million tons of CO2e, equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road for a year.
In response to the report (via Ars Technica), Google stated that regular Chromebook software updates add new features and improve device security every four weeks. This allows them to continuously iterate on 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 provide updates. Additionally, the company claims to be working with device manufacturing partners to build devices that are more repairable and use manufacturing processes that reduce emissions.
However, PIRG argues that Google needs to do better for students who rely on their laptops. “With more tech in our lives and classrooms, if Google wants to be a trusted source for tens of millions of students, they need to make laptops that families and school districts can count on,” said PIRG’s Lucas Rockett Gutterman. The organization asserts that the least we can do for students who rely on their laptops is ensure that these devices are durable and repairable, not part of a constant churn.