SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Back in 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the Apple I, an early personal computer that consisted of a circuit board in a simple wooden box.
Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and other computer makers went on to make advanced PCs in metal and plastic casings, but now Taiwan’s Asustek Computer Inc (2357.TW) is finding potential beauty -- and sales -- in an eco-friendly notebook PC encased in another natural material: bamboo.
The Asus Eco Book, as it’s dubbed, has a case made of laminated bamboo strips available in different shades.
Harvesting bamboo, an abundant, flexible, durable and fast-growing grass, is unlikely to harm the environment as processing wood from trees might, Asustek said, although glues and laminates for shaping and fortifying the material sometimes contain toxins.
The product is still in the prototype stage and engineers are checking to see if bamboo is suitable for laptops, which have to endure extreme conditions while allowing heat from microprocessors and monitors to escape.
The Eco book is a new tack for a company that caters to executives and other high-end users with its calf leather-bound notebooks and faux alligator-skin models.
“Originally we came out with a leather model style-book,” said Cher Chronis, director of marketing communication for Asus Computer International, the Taipei-based company’s U.S. unit.
“It was very popular,” she said. “After that, it was kind of natural for us to experiment with other types of materials, so we decided to go green.”
Asustek says its leather notebooks have not been criticized by animal-rights activists and that the Eco book is not meant to assuage critics.
While just about all big computer makers are taking steps to make technology more environmentally friendly, Asustek is one of the first to unveil a bamboo-encased computer.
Some niche companies geared toward eco-conscious consumers offer bamboo computer mice, keyboards and monitor frames.
“As part of a portfolio of case choices, it makes sense,” said Roger Kay, president of PC market researcher Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc.
“I don’t think the computer is going to go over to wooden casing,” Kay said. “It’s ecological to grow it, but my sense is there’s probably more show than substance to the claim of sustainable manufacturing.”
While plastic casings often contain toxins like polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, the bigger environmental threats come from lead in cathode ray tube monitors
All major manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard Co (HPQ.N), the world’s largest PC maker, Dell Inc DELL.O, the No. 2, Apple as well as Asian rivals Lenovo Group Ltd (0992.HK) and Acer Inc (2353.TW), have programs to reduce energy consumption, recycle components and reduce hazardous materials in computers.
Consumers and businesses are expected to buy about 260 million PCs this year, a 12 percent jump from 2006’s level, according to market researcher IDC. Growth is being fueled by surging demand for notebook computers.
With so many computers being sold, and an estimated 500 million computers hitting obsolescence in the United States alone in the past 10 years, PC accessory makers are going green, too.
Laptop computer case and accessory maker Targus Inc recently introduced its environmentally-friendly Grove laptop cases, made of recyclable plastics, nickel-free hardware and PVC-free material.
Targus teamed up with the Texas-based computer maker last month to sell its cases on Dell’s Web site and will donate a portion of its Dell-sold cases to Dell’s “Plant a tree for me” program, which allows consumers to make donations to plant trees to offset the carbon impact of electricity for running their computers.
Dell and Lenovo plan to eliminate PVC and brominated flame retardants, or BFRs, another potential hazard, from their new products by 2009, and Dell requires its parts suppliers to meet environmental targets such as carbon-emission reductions.
Apple says it plans to eliminate the use of PVC and BFRs from all its products by the end of next year.
The major computer companies including Apple and Dell also have programs to recycle discarded PCs and monitors. By 2010, Apple expects to recycle 19 million pounds of so-called e-waste per year, or about 30 percent of the product weight it sold seven years earlier.
HP said it is on schedule to meet a goal of recycling 1 billion pounds of equipment and supplies by the end of this year.
Asustek, while small compared with HP, Dell and other heavyweights, says its size enables it to design, manufacture, market and distribute PCs on its own, allowing it to get new ideas like the bamboo PC to market faster.
“If it does get to the point where we do find a model that meets all the engineering requirements and allows green computing, we will release it,” the company’s Chronis said. “Everybody loves the Eco book. It’s a beautiful computer.”
Editing by Brian Moss