The Green Room
Power-hungry and destined to end their days in a landfill site barely three years after they leave the factory gate – the environmental profile of high-tech products is becoming an increasingly weighty albatross around the necks of their manufacturers.
As environmental compliance legislation hovers on the sidelines of the corporate consciousness, organisations are being forced to rethink their environmental and social responsibility policies. The United Nations is just one of many organisations urging businesses to consider alternative computing models after publishing a report on the damage caused by PC manufacturing alone.
The UN study found that manufacturing a PC consumes 10 times the machine’s weight in fossil fuels and chemicals. In comparison, manufacturing a car or a fridge requires only two times the item’s weight in fossil fuels. The report also identified other damage from manufacturing processes, such as potential exposure to hazardous materials when PCs are discarded in landfill sites, and calls for government incentives to extend the life of PCs and slow down the rate of upgrades to newer models.
For most companies the headache of disposing of old IT equipment is increasingly dealt with by suppliers who remove old kit and either offer it to employees, donate it to charity or dump it in landfill sites or incinerators. However, it is not just the hardware that poses a problem: technology itself is having both positive and negative effects on our environment. For example, communicating via email helps to curb paper waste, despite a tendency by some to print emails. And home working, in theory, decreases the pollution caused by commuter traffic.
The tension between manufacturers and legislators is destined to increase as the industry fights pressure on costs due to EU recycling regulations, while trying to avoid having its competitiveness undercut by foreign manufacturers who are outside the EU jurisdiction area and therefore free from recycling obligations. That has prompted increasing co-operation and opened communication channels between manufacturers, buyers and legislators with the aim of making products more recyclable.
° Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive: Makes it compulsory for organisations to dispose of their equipment in an environmentally responsible fashion. From August 2005, it will also provide information on recyclers in the local vicinity.
° Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive: Controls the use of dangerous materials in the production of electronic equipment.
° Kyoto Climate Treaty: The 1997 UN-led agreement between 84 countries to reduce industrialised countries’ 1990 emissions levels by 5.2% by 2012, in an attempt to slow global warming. The reductions depend on the population, climate, size and economic development of the country – for example, Britain has committed to a 12.5% reduction and Germany to a 21% reduction.
° Averatec, the UK-based laptop manufacturer, now promises customers it will pay for the neutralisation of one tonne of carbon dioxide for every notebook sold, in co-operation with climate protection initiative ClimatePartner. Companies are becoming increasingly savvy to the potential benefits that environmental responsibility policies bring. “If environmental protection is already included in the price, it might become an additional argument for the user’s buying decision,” says Averatec’s general manager Andy King.
° Hardware manufacturer Dell offers to collect and recycle customers’ old hardware, which is then de-manufactured and either re-used or disposed of in an environmentally-friendly manner. It has also introduced a new green corporate desktop in a move to reduce the use of lead in desktops. The PC operates at lower temperatures, which in turn reduces the likelihood of system failure.
° DHL, the express delivery specialist, has implemented a global environmental management system (EMS) across 200 operational sites. The software will store and track data on energy and water consumption and fuel use and will automatically calculate the emissions generated by each customer’s couriering job.
° Toshiba in Japan has a recycling policy, launched in 2003, which encourages customers to deposit their old PCs at more than 20,000 post offices nationwide. Collected PCs are then manually disassembled at recycling facilities in Japan. In the first six months, over a thousand PCs and laptops were collected. The manufacturer also recycles the plastic casing that accounts for 25% of the weight of a notebook PC.
° Mobile service provider O2 asks customers and employees to send back old mobile phones and accessories for recycling, refurbishment and re-use. Last year, 111,262 phones went through the scheme, and a donation to environmental charity Rainforest Concern was made for every phone suitable for re-use. With 40 million mobile phone owners in the UK, and most of them upgrading their phone every year, it is crucial that phones, as well as the paper manuals and cardboard packing, avoid the landfill sites for as long as possible.