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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2003 : Special Section

Special Section

The Environment Vs. the New Economy

Consumers love their high-tech toys, yet they come with a high environmental price tag. Can consumers convince the eletronics industry to go green? Some leading orginazations say they can. Here's how.

Well-informed consumers are emerging as a new force in the global struggle to create an environmentally sustainable world, reports a new study by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental and social policy research organization. Aided by labeling programs, standards and an expanding group of social and environmental certification organizations, the world’s consumers are “voting with their wallets” for products and services that promote sustainable development.

“Some free market advocates claim that the market automatically gives people all the choices they want and all the information they need,” says Michael Renner, Worldwatch senior researcher and project director for Vital Signs 2002. “But what consumers are demonstrating is that they want more environmentally acceptable choices than the market has been delivering, and more trustworthy information about the social and environmental impact of the products they might buy.”

Vital Signs 2002—produced with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the W. Alton Jones Foundation—highlights several sectors where consumer pressure could be pivotal in getting industry and regulatory bodies to step up to the plate—including the electronics industry.

The electronics industry in 2001 produced 60 million transistors for every man, woman and child on earth. California’s Santa Clara County, the birthplace of the semiconductor industry, now contains more toxic waste sites than any other county in the United States. In 1997, more than 2.9 million tons of e-waste ended up in U.S. landfills, and by 2004, tens of millions of cell phones and an estimated 315 million computers may be headed for our dumps.

“We tend to think of the ‘new economy’ as being cleaner than the ‘smokestack economy,’” Renner says. “But manufacturing semiconductors is chemical-intensive. And the short life-span of these products is creating mountains of electronics waste, poisoning groundwater supplies and endangering human health. Cell phone and computer users should be demanding that manufacturers take their products back and design them to be recycled instead of dumped.”

New Economy, Not Clean Economy

Consider the following statistics included in Vital Signs 2002:

* In 2001, about 520 million people used the Internet, which encompassed 147 million host computers, almost double the number in 1999. And the number of mobile telephone subscribers rose to almost one billion in 2001, nearly pulling even with the number of fixed-line connections.

* A single semiconductor plant may use between 500 and 1,000 different chemicals, making the semiconductor industry one of the most chemically intensive ever known.
w A computer monitor contains 1.8 to 3.6 kilograms of lead, a heavy metal that damages the nervous system and poisons blood cell development.

* In some American businesses, one computer is used per user per year, fueling a growing waste crisis. And at least 315 million computers in the United States are predicted to become obsolete by 2004.

* 300 to 500 million metric tons of hazardous waste were generated worldwide each year during the past decade, amounting to roughly 50 to 83 kilograms per person in 1999 alone.

* Discarded cell phones are a growing contributor to electronic waste, as consumers seek the latest technology and manufacturers introduce disposable models.

The Northwest Product Stewardship Council (NWPSC) provides a general outline on its Web site (www.productsteward of environmentally-related problems associated with electronic products.

First, it reports, computers are as common in our offices as telephones—and the numbers are growing. Faster, more powerful machines quickly replace obsolete equipment, and “upgrade” cycles span only two or three years. Most computer equipment is not designed to be easily recycled. Components are difficult to take apart and materials, especially plastics, are often unlabeled making recycling difficult. The result is large amounts of electronic junk headed for disposal.

Besides wasting materials, the manufacturing process and disposal of electronic equipment may release pollutants into the air and water and may adversely affect human health and the environment. The costs to replace equipment every two or three years, plus the cost to dispose of these items properly can add up quickly. What looked like a good price for new equipment may carry significant hidden costs.

The NWPSC believes that consumers can affect the electronics marketplace with their purchasing decisions and urges them to send a message to manufacturers and suppliers. Choose manufacturers who practice product stewardship by making it their business to produce products that are less toxic, conserve materials and reduce waste.

To encourage manufacturers to adopt product stewardship practices, the NWPSC work group has developed A Guide to Environmentally Preferable Computer Purchasing, which provides suggestions that will help buyers include product stewardship principles in purchasing criteria and bids.

Problems and Alternatives

From design to disposal, purchasing choices affect the environment. The lists that follow, which are included in NWPSC’s guide, identify materials and processes to consider for their environmental impacts and show how purchasing specifications can reduce or eliminate those problems.

The most important part of “green purchasing,” according to the NWPSC, is taking steps to avoid pollution and waste. Energy efficient equipment cuts polluting emissions from power plants. Providing for equipment at the end of its useful life also prevents pollution and saves valuable resources. That’s good business, too: the most efficient system has the least waste.

Obsolescence versus “Upgradability”
The problem:

“Planned obsolescence” and design-for-disposal uses up natural resources and causes waste. Operating systems and software that cannot be upgraded electronically affect both the environment and the user’s budget.

The alternatives:

* Lease and take-back options (the purchaser buys computing “service” rather than a computer “product”).

* Choose operating systems and software that are readily upgradable.

* Ask for readily upgradable hardware.

* Make sure spare parts and service will be available (defined in “years available after production”).

Check to see that memory is easily expandable. Demand “spare tire” software and licensing, pre-loaded to allow for simple reuse of hardware. (Spare tire software is “inflated” when equipment is decommissioned. The original software-related data are erased.)

Packaging & Shipping

The problem:

Computer equipment comes packaged in materials that typically cannot be reused, separated or recycled. Glued computer parts and multiple-material packaging impede recycling. Materials such as polystyrene are generally made without recycled content and may be non-recyclable. Excessive packaging is wasteful. Paper manuals and disks packaged with each computer often add to the waste.

The alternatives:

* Ask for several computer units to be packaged together for shipping (called “multi-paks”) rather than boxed individually.

* Require recycled-content materials and recyclable packaging.

* Recyclers need to know material types, so require labeling (type of plastic, metal, etc.).

* Require manufacturers or shippers to take back packaging for reuse or recycling.

* Ask for on-line manuals and pre-installed programs.

* Require that types and number of materials are minimized and content is labeled.

Toxic Materials

The problem:

Manufacturing of computers and component parts typically involves solvents and other substances that must be controlled to reduce pollution and health risks. Cadmium, mercury, lead and brominated or halogenated compounds do not break down readily in nature and require special management. (Refer to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition’s Clean Computer Campaign at for more details about toxic substances related to computer equipment.)

The alternatives:
* Mandate low levels of toxic chemicals of concern. Massachusetts recently awarded points to bidders who, in manufacturing and assembly, avoided CFCs or HCFCs, chlorinated solvents, cadmium, mercury and chlorinated or brominated flame retardants.

* Use non-halogenated flame retardants or equipment designed using self-extinguishing base.
* Require take-back provisions for all equipment.

* Use lead-free solder.

* Explore glass-to-glass recycling to reuse leaded glass in cathode ray tubes (CRTs). Two companies, Envirocycle and Waste Management Asset Recovery, have facilities to do this.

Use only low-mercury and long-life lamps in flat panel

* Batteries should be removable, rechargeable and recyclable.

* Label battery type, weight; give instructions for recycling, removal and installation.

Additional Factors

The problem:

Product design and manufacturing should address air and water pollution and employee health concerns. Besides using toxic substances and “designing-for-disposal,” manufacturers often use glues or fasteners that make repair or upgrade impractical. In addition, virgin and non-recyclable materials use up more water, energy and minerals than recycled materials.

The alternatives:
* Demand products and parts designed so they can be
disassembled with universally available tools; minimize use of fasteners.

* Require readily recyclable metal casings, such as metal rather than plastic housings that eliminate the need for halogenated flame retardants, thus increasing recyclability.

* Require recycled-content materials.

* Use remanufactured and refurbished equipment.

* Choose manufacturers who minimize the toxicity and variety of adhesives, labels, coatings, finishes, fasteners and metallic paints.

Require EnergyStar compliance for energy use and sleep modes, active upon delivery and functional within LAN environment. This can save substantially on electricity use and costs, and reduce greenhouse gases related to energy generation. (Visit for more information.) Researchers at Delft University in Holland are designing a wind up laptop that operates for one hour upon 20 seconds of winding.

Require and enable duplex printing mode.

Require electronic or on-line documentation.

Select printers and copiers that use remanufactured toner cartridges and can print on both sides of paper.

* Consider air quality standards for printers. Environment Canada’s standards for desktop printers: ozone concentration must not exceed .04mg/m3; dust concentration must not exceed .24 mg/m3.

* The European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) recommends reporting the values for ozone, VOC and dust in terms of mg/m and/or mg/hour determined in full operation of the product, and has set up a task group to draft a standard.

Eco-Labels and Product Certifications

There are a number of existing eco-label and certification systems for computers and peripherals. The NWPSC advocates that purchasers ask suppliers to provide certified products or equivalents and check with the labeling and certification entities for additional details and, in some cases, lists of certified products.

Scientific Certification Systems
SCS certifies selected “Environmentally Preferable Products, Services and Technologies” for many products including electronics, using techniques such as: life cycle impact assessment, supplemented by information from other scientific studies such as environmental impact assessment; risk assessment and environmental resource-based studies, and knowledge about “best available” technologies and practices in a given industry.

European Computer Manufacturers Association
The European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) environmental efforts reside primarily with Technical Committee 38, Product-Related Environmental Attributes, whose scope is “to identify and describe the environmental attributes related to information and communication technology and consumer electronics products during their entire life cycle, from conception to end-of-life treatment.”

* TCO Development
The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) is an environmental labeling scheme and authority, which addresses ergonomics, emissions (radiation and energy use and noise) and several other environmental attributes for computers, monitors and printers.

* Environmental Choice

Established in 1988, Canada’s “Environmental Choice” Eco-Logo program certifies products because they are made or offered in a way that improves energy efficiency, reduces hazardous by-products, uses recycled materials or because the product itself can be reused.

* Blue Angel

The world’s first eco-labeling program, Blue Angel was created in 1977 to promote environmentally sound products, relative to others in the same group categories. Criteria include: the efficient use of fossil fuels; alternative products with less of an impact on the climate; reduction of greenhouse gas emission; and conservation of resources.

* Nordic Swan

The objective of this voluntary co-labeling scheme in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark is to provide information regarding products that are the least harmful to the environment. Criteria for co-labeling include requirements for the composition of the product, construction, materials, chemicals, marking of parts, waste disposal, recycling, energy consumption, noise level, ergonomics, electromagnetic fields and safety of use.

The Nordic Information Technology Organization is comprised of IT organizations from Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The NITO eco-declaration is a detailed checklist/questionnaire that lists both voluntary standards and those required by law. Many of the voluntary requirements come from Germany’s Blue Angel 94 and/or Nordic SWAN 95 certifications.

* Eco-label (EU)
The European Union’s program was launched throughout the European Community in 1993 to encourage the manufacture of less environmentally damaging products. The EU’s Eco-label is awarded to products that have passed a life cycle analysis. Criteria include: energy consumption; life-time extension; take-back and recycling; user instructions; a limit on the mercury content of the background lighting in liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors; restrictions on the noise level produced by the person computer system; and maximum exposure limits for electromagnetic emissions of the computer monitor.

* U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star
This program has information about Energy Star-labeled computers, monitors and printers, including criteria and lists of qualifying products. Design for the Environment (DfE)-The Computer Display Project assesses the life cycle impacts of flat panel displays (FPDs) and conventional cathode ray tube monitors (CRTs) by combining Cleaner Technologies Substitutes Assessment (CTSA) and life cycle assessment (LCA) approaches.

* Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

The Clean Computer Campaign, a project of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, researched major computer corporations operating in the U.S. to see how responsible corporations were to consumers regarding three issues: the use of hazardous materials in computers; the ability to upgrade one’s computer; and the ability to return old computers back to the producer for safe reuse and recycling.

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