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The computer wants to be green

It’s increasingly difficult to hide electronic waste under the carpet. The challenge has been set: create products that are more recyclable, environmentally friendly and with a longer life.

Numerous examples establish that not only governments, with more exacting regulations on the processing of residues, but users themselves, are demanding products with a more environmental design and which are able to be partially or fully reused at the end of the their useful life.

Greenpeace publishes a guide (Guide to Greener Electronics) that periodically classifies the main manufacturers of computers, electronics and mobile phones according to the level of sustainability of each firm. To create the list, the organization evaluates 3 parameters:

  • Policies on the use of toxic materials (complete suppression, restricted use, uncontrolled use).
  • Recycling (light or ostentatious packaging, design of devices to facilitate their total or partial recycling, own recycling programs).
  • Climate Change (improvement in the production processes, active policies to diminish the environmental footprint of the firm).

Apple, which still has good press among its users, was harshly criticized after appearing low on the Greenpeace list.

Aware of what was at stake, the company, respected in liberal and educational circles, published a statement of principles (not a “memo”, as in the joke from Jerry Maguire), A Greener Apple.

The text, signed by the Jobs himself, explained the firm’s achievements in recycling and in the use of less, and less dangerous, material such as cadmium or lead.

In the latest Greenpeace ranking, Apple improved its sustainability score and the brand now includes, among the specifications of its products, a section titled “environmental status report”, which reads (in the case of the iPhone 3G, for example):

“iPhone 3G embodies Apple’s continuing environmental progress. It is designed with the following features to reduce environmental impact: PVC-free handset; PVC-free headphones; PVC-free USB cable; bromine-free printed circuit boards; mercury-free LCD display; majority of packaging made from post-consumer recycled fiberboard and bio-based materials; power adapter outperforms strictest global energy efficiency standards.”

Perhaps Apple’s “environmental status report” doesn’t reveal revolutionary information, but its appearance as a separate section under technical specifications for the latest fad denotes the growing importance of sustainability among users and and the brands themselves.

Apple, nevertheless, remains behind manufacturers like Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Dell, Toshiba or Acer, among others, in the Greenpeace ranking from June of 2008.

It would be interesting if Greenpeace developed an application that measured corporate sustainability, with the same criteria used for its guides, and distributed this free at App stores.

Whenever Apple- which would reserve the right to remove this information if not in keeping with its good image- didn’t provide this material, it would receive criticism.

Trapped in the past

In the era of ubiquitous iPhone 3Gs, laptops and the Internet, the treatment of electronic waste remains trapped in a more contaminating era: cathode-ray tubes emitting toxic dust, a strong smell of plastic and reheated circuitry, mercury everywhere.

With the growing popularity of electronic and data processing devices, like the laptop computer, the mobile phone, multimedia and musical devices, or digital cameras and videocameras, more components are being produced and used than never before and, likewise, product lifespan has been reduced from several years to a few months currently.

For that reason electronic trash, or “e-waste”, has become a problem that implicates governments (processing of waste, affect on health and the environment) and the users (lack of simple and clear guidelines to dispose of products, lack of devices designed to last longer or with more sustainable specifications).

Flirting with sustainability: What does it mean to be green?

The large manufacturers, that continue receiving costly and reliable periodic reports on the predilection of consumers, as well as trends that can be become authentic structural changes, know that ethical consumption is serious.

Now everyone knows that, before the omnipresent iPod, the “Walkman”- that Sony invented in the late ’70s- didn’t have competition in the world of portable music players.

Several computer manufacturers confirm, with products and advertising campaigns, to have bet decisively on sustainability.

As the journalist Ana Campoy explains in The Wall Street Journal, businesses like Lenovo and Dell manufacture much more energy efficient computers than their predecessors, use recycled materials or with a much lower impact than those that used traditionally, like shells made with bamboo, a vegetable fiber more resistant than some metals.

Although Jeffrey Ball argues, also in The Wall Street Journal and via Campoy’s article, that perhaps the most sustainable policies would be if manufacturers would produce products with a lifespan much longer than the current one, where years have become months, for the majority of products.

Extending the shelf life of a computer can be eventually, according to Ball, more effective than creating machines with sophisticated materials, above all in the context of the unstoppable growth of electronic waste.

What are true environmental policies?

From the ancient mountain of jars in Rome to the dumps of Staten Island, today’s society produces more trash than any other in history.

The Economist article What a waste (September 2008) verifies a decrease in trash production per person per day in rich countries, while it grows like never before in emerging countries, and those which have the largest populations in the world (Chinese, India, Brazil, Indonesia).

Jeffrey Ball is not alone in believing that the processing of electronic waste is one of the biggest challenges in the 21st century. Anyone who makes predictions using the current numbers will arrive at a similar conclusion.

The number of obsolete computers more than doubled in 2007, from the 20 million machines that were retired in 1998, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA.

And the majority of these machines ended up, in 2007, like they had in previous years, in dumps, where no one reused the materials, and worse yet, removed the hazardous material from inside, thus exposing them to the environment.

In just 2007, there were 205.5 million pieces discarded from data processing equipment, of which only 48.2 million, or 18%, were recycled, according to the latest report from the EPA.

Almost two million tons of used computers, television sets, mobile phones and other devices ended up in the trash without being treated, generating, according to Jeffrey Ball, “mounds of wasted plastic and metal, and potentially leaching contaminants such as lead and chromium into the environment”.

While the efforts of companies like Asus, Dell, Nokia, Sony or Lenovo to create machines with more efficient components and with more sustainable, resistant, and recyclable materials, is growing, this still does not address what still is taboo in the industry: can they agree to create products designed to last longer?

Greener, recyclable, and more lasting products?

To confront the growing environmental footprint of electronic and data processing products, manufacturers have put forth three different types of initiatives. Each one assumes a different resolution to the same problem:

  • Create greener products. Example: Nokia (Remade).
  • Share technologies so that the products be easily recyclable, more efficient, etc. Example: the patent-sharing initiative Eco-Patents Commons.
  • Generate a new model of production, and distribution, that extends the lifespan of devices. Example: the Linc, a prototype mobile phone very similar to the iPhone that would not be sold, but “lent” (as in the lease of a car). The same brand would take back the product when it was obsolete and replace it with a new model, constructed on the basis of the previous one.

Nokia’s range of environmental mobile phone prototypes, baptized Remade, envisions the first resolution for solving the environmental problem. These are commercial products that are more efficient than the conventional models and include recycled or sustainable materials.

The second solution to the same problem: Eco-Patents Commons. It is an industrial initiative of open membership in which a group of businesses (Nokia, Sony, IBM, Xerox and others) assure that they will offer technological patents developed to protect, directly or indirectly, the environment, and will put them at the disposal of those who want to consult them and to use them.

The details of the initiative recognize the industrial secret and only they guarantee the contribution among the participating businesses when is a matter of technologies that “do not represent an essential source of business advantage”, but are able to “help others become more eco-efficient and operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner”. A video explains the project.

The third solution is Linc. This conceptual mobile phone is provided, in concept, on loan, so that the manufacturer is responsible for its distribution, collection and replacement with new models.

  • According to Linc, the user keeps the device for a year and, when the next generation of components arrives, the user receives a new apparatus by mail.
  • The old device, assuming that the user renews the service, wirelessly transfers all the user’s information and stored contents to the new device.
  • Once the user is finished with the product, the old apparatus should be sent to the nearest distribution center (the device includes valuable materials such as aluminum, glass and electronic components, that are completely reused by the manufacturer).
  • Linc has been designed to be easily disassembled, automatically and without damaging any component, to guarantee its recycling.

The American design and publicity studio Kaleidoscope, that created the project The Greener Grass to give a platform for concepts like Linc, believes that this prototype “changes the entire paradigm of the production and consumption model today. If implemented, a design such as this could greatly reduce hazardous waste and improve environmental health by reducing e-waste.”

None of these three apparent solutions to the problem of electronic waste (more ecological products, those designed for their subsequent recycling or longer lasting -perennial-) excludes the use of the other.

Any manufacturer could apply industrial policies that imaginatively explored these paths, or to generate individual solutions.

Growth of “green” products for the mass market

Reporter Joseph of Ávila explains in The Wall Street Journal that manufacturers of computers, processors and software develop “greener” products for environmentally conscious consumers.

While some firms develop more energy efficient product lines, others launch software products so that the current machines consume less.

Meanwhile, explains De Ávila, “electronics manufacturers are expanding ways to make new computers out of recycled materials, as well as encourage customers to recycle old machines.”

Examples (facilitated by Joseph de Ávila in The Wall Street Journal) of mass consumption data processing devices designed for environmentally respectful clients:

  • SimpleTech [re] drive: external hard disk manufactured with recycled aluminum and bamboo. It is turned on and off automatically in unison with the computer, to avoid any additional watt of consumption.
  • Apple MacBook Air: received a silver rating from Epeat, a program that examines company’s production policies and recycling efforts. It also meets Energy Star requirements. It consumes the least amount of power of any Mac.
  • HP Deskjet D2545: ink-jet printer made with 83% recycled plastic. The ink cartridges are made from recycled plastic resins. Energy consumption that complies with Energy Star.
  • Dell Studio Hybrid: the smallest desktop computer from Dell (around 80% smaller than the standard machines). Received Epeat gold status, the highest possible rating from the program. Energy Star 4.0 qualified.
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X300: low voltage processors, arsenic-free glass and mercury-free displays. Received the best possible Epeat rating (gold certification). Energy Star 4.0 qualified.

The role of users

Several factors prompt businesses to develop more sustainable products.

Many firms want to be ahead of the curve on an unmistakable trend worldwide toward increasingly more exacting environmental legislation, many of which originate in the EU, or to earn the favor of investors mindful of environmental and ethical criteria, according to analyst Christopher Mins, of Forrester Research.

It’s consumers who are affecting the biggest companies.

Forrester surveyed 5,000 American adults and found that 12% are willing to pay more for devices that use less energy or that have been manufactured by a company that respects the environment.

The companies believe that this 12% (for those who think this is a low figure, it represents a larger number than Apple’s portion of the computer market, for example) will grow quickly.

It’s now obvious that sustainability is no longer the territory of NGOs and extreme environmentalists.

In his blog for The Wall Street Journal (a publication that cannot be discounted for being radical environmentalists), Jeffrey Ball illustrates with an example of how the behavior of some computer users is changing.

Ball explains that in Berkeley, California, computer users have become computer recycling zealots, and have created the Alameda County Computer Resource Center.

In this store, rows of old monitors, mice and computer pieces help volunteers transform what is considered electronic waste into computers that are later donated to schools and non-profits.

The motto of this computer resources center (to see the center in action): “Obsolescence is just a lack of imagination.”