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 worlds 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 2002produced with the support of the United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP) and the W. Alton Jones Foundationhighlights
several sectors where consumer pressure could be pivotal in getting
industry and regulatory bodies to step up to the plateincluding
the electronics industry.
The electronics industry in 2001 produced 60 million transistors
for every man, woman and child on earth. Californias 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
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 ship.net/Electronics.html)
of environmentally-related problems associated with electronic products.
First, it reports, computers are as common in our offices as telephonesand
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
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
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
Problems and Alternatives
From design to disposal, purchasing choices affect the environment.
The lists that follow, which are included in NWPSCs guide,
identify materials and processes to consider for their environmental
impacts and show how purchasing specifications can reduce or eliminate
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. Thats good business,
too: the most efficient system has the least waste.
Obsolescence versus Upgradability
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 users budget.
* Lease and take-back options
(the purchaser buys computing service rather than a
* Choose operating systems and
software that are readily upgradable.
* Ask for readily upgradable
* Make sure spare parts and
service will be available (defined in years available after
* 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
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.
* 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
* Require that types and number
of materials are minimized and content is labeled.
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
Coalitions Clean Computer Campaign at www.svtc.org for more
details about toxic substances related to computer equipment.)
* 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.
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.
* 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
* 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 www.energystar.gov
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 Canadas 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
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, Canadas 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 worlds 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
* 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 Germanys Blue Angel 94 and/or Nordic SWAN 95 certifications.
* Eco-label (EU)
The European Unions program was launched throughout the European
Community in 1993 to encourage the manufacture of less environmentally
damaging products. The EUs 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 Agencys 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
* 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 ones computer; and the ability to return old computers
back to the producer for safe reuse and recycling.