Sustainable IT


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.


Reusing and recycling

UK companies pour around 1.5 million PCs, equal to 125,000 tonnes of IT equipment, into landfill sites every year and globally, according to research company Gartner, another 220 million PCs will meet a similar fate this year. These hardware graveyards will be around for generations to come – a constant, although largely invisible, threat to the environmental health of the planet.

One way of slowing the damage of this growth is to recycle equipment, but this is expensive and inefficient. A better alternative may be to offer redundant kit for re-use via charities such as Computer Aid International (CAI). The lifecycle of a PC can be extended by three years through reconditioning, giving as much as 6,000 additional hours of use.

"If you don't hang on to it for too long, your old equipment can make a vital contribution to the education of people who otherwise would remain forever trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide," says Tony Roberts, CAI founder.

A more intractable problem is the billion printer and toner cartridges that are thrown out worldwide every year. Toner cartridges aren't yet covered by the EU's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, and printer manufacturers (who rely on toner sales for most of their profits) still practice techniques that make it uneconomic to refill, rather than replace proprietary toner cartridges.

Nonetheless, an independent, refillable-cartridge industry is flourishing – undercutting proprietary cartridge prices but at the risk, the vendors claim, of reducing the quality and lifespan of their printers.




Compliance requirements

° 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.



Best Practice

The option of curbing business-related travel through the use of web conferencing is arguably enabling companies to save time, and reduce the greenhouse effect simultaneously. For example, when Toshiba chose to use web conferencing service WebEx, it saved the equivalent of 115 full working days, made a 75% cost saving in terms of overall travel budget and a 25% increase in employee productivity.

Similarly, AT&T estimated that in just one year, its teleworkers in the US avoided 87 million miles of driving, preventing emissions of 41,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 93,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides and 1.4 million tonnes of carbon monoxide. The danger in mobile working is that employees working from home use a disproportionately larger amount of energy (lighting, heating, electricity) than if they travelled, via public transport, to an energy-efficient group office.

When replacing equipment, green advisers suggest organisations should buy high-spec machines that will last longer, and evaluate whether or not every employee needs a rich client PC. Thin clients, for example, use a fraction of the energy, last four times longer and require less frequent upgrades because all the applications sit on central servers. In the same vein, a mainframe computer is arguably more power efficient, and may be more reliable than 20 temperamental and power-hungry Intel servers.

But one action can have a major effect: turning off the PC monitor. A monitor on standby uses 51kWh per year of electricity – equivalent to boiling 500 kettles. Turning off two photocopiers and three printers saves around five tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, according to printer manufacturer Ricoh.




Case Studies

° 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.



Bright ideas

Intelligent paper

According to the Confederation of Paper Industries, the UK consumes 13 million tonnes of paper every year. SmartPaper, a form of electronic paper that has the look and portable qualities of natural paper but which records data and is reusable, has emerged from Xerox. Waitrose, the supermarket division of John Lewis, is planning to use this technology to update its signage and labelling systems in its UK stores, and will use a WiFi connection to change price information wirelessly from a central computer.

Fuel cell technology

Harmful substances used in battery cells may soon be a thing of the past with the advent of fuel cells powered by hydrogen. This cutting-edge technology would remove the need for rechargeable lithium-based batteries in devices such as laptops and 3G mobile phones. The UN is currently discussing deregulation over the prohibition of proposed substances such as methanol on board aircrafts, one of the reasons Nokia has put plans to incorporate fuel cell technology into its handsets on hold.



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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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