Reducing Resource Use
Bud E. Smith
Resource use may be the most visible issue in all of green computing. After
all, electricity is invisible; even coal-fired power plants don't throw off much
visible smoke these days. But electronic waste is highly visible, and familiar
Almost every household has experience with extra power chargers that are
hard to match with devices; old cell phones; old computers; old televisions; and
more, all hanging around in a "junk drawer" and odd corners of someone's
room or the garage. This somewhat humorous problem becomes a real issue in
a company that may be responsible for thousands of devices at a time.
Your company can stand out strongly by intelligently handling computer
"stuff" and all the related issues that go with it, including worker safety in your
facilities. Let's look at some aspects of this issue.
The first is that computers are, as the Story of Electronics video (http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-electronics/) eloquently
puts it, "designed for the dump." I'll focus here on Windows-based PCs; Apple's
products have their own issues, which I'll highlight in the next section.
Windows PCs are assembled out of piece parts from a worldwide marketplace
of suppliers. Dell Computer, one of the top computer makers on Earth, is
a good example. Their sourcing people are constantly scouring the globe looking
for new sources for the components that make up a PC.
A hard disk from here, a motherboard from there, a video card from somewhere
elseand you're much of the way to building a Windows PC. Each
supplier only has to meet minimum standards, and globalization means those
standards depend on the standards of enforcement that are in place in the countries
where devices are made.
This is brilliant business strategy; it helps keep costs to an absolute minimum.
Much of the job of a company like Dell is making sure that these various
parts work well together. Dell, in particular, has done this so expertly, most of
the time, that it's been the subject of a stream of laudatory books, magazine
articles, and more.
When such a computer breaks, what are the odds that a replacement part
will work perfectly with the rest of the parts that were put together? Pretty
good, but not 100%. Dell is said to be responsive, usually getting someone out
to their customers within a couple of days. Of course, you're without the computer
until then, and who wants to do that?
In fact, most savvy IT departmentsand even savvy end userswill immediately
put a new computer through its paces, making sure it "does what it says
on the tin." That's because it's important to get any repairs started right away
within the warranty period and before you've loaded software on the computer,
imported your Web browser bookmarks, and started to count on the computer
to get anything important done.
Dell has overlapping warranty periods of 90 days of complete coverage
(United States only), one year of fairly full coverage, and extension periods that
you can pay for. If a problem occurs outside of the included coverage, and any
extensions you buy, you're out of luck.
And out of luck is a good way of describing what happens; when an out-of-
warranty computer fails, it can cost several hundred dollars just to get the
problem assessed. This has to be weighed against the cost of buying a new
computer that's faster, smaller, potentially greenerand still within its free warranty
It's not just hardware that's a problem. Software on a Windows PC is such
that performance steadily degrades due to hard disk fragmentation, disk space
filling up, and, importantly, the effects of various kinds of malware and viruses.
A good antivirus program can help save you a lot of moneyit costs several
hundred dollars for a consumer to have a computer cleaned up.
There's an old rule of thumb that it's less expensive, overall, to replace any
kind of product if the repair cost is more than about a third of the price of
buying a new one. If a Windows PC costs $500 to buy (for the system unit
only), and it costs $200 to get it assessed for repairs, you've passed the spending
threshold before you even think about actually fixing anything.
It's also not unheard of that the process of cleaning debris from your computer's
system files will introduce some software incompatibility or data loss
that leaves you worse off than before.
Although you, as an IT pro, can handle these issues somewhat more effectively
than a consumer, it will still cost an IT department a lot of money to
keep a PC in shapeand you have a lower purchase price for a new system
than a consumer does. You're about as motivated to replace, rather than repair,
a Windows PC as an end user can be.
A Resource Use Checklist
I've mentioned The Story of Electronics as a resource for green computing.
Along with the story itself, the video includes a built-in Frequently Asked
Questions (FAQ) list. It's made up of convenient links to key topics around
responsible resource use for electronics products.
For all its virtues, though, The Story of Electronics is consumer-oriented.
Let's take a look at the FAQ topics and expand on how they apply to your purchasing
decisions as you pursue green computing.
Computers and related products are full of exotic materials
and chemicals. More and more people are sensitive to these materials
and, yes, some of them may simply believe that they are. But the materials
in computers include known and suspected carcinogens and other
pollutants: lead, mercury, and brominated (bromine-containing) flame
retardants. Bromine, according to The Free Dictionary online site, is "A
heavy, volatile, corrosive, reddish-brown, nonmetallic liquid element, having
a highly irritating vapor." Also commonly used are heavy metals like
cadmium, hexavalent chromium (the toxic substance featured in the Julia
Roberts movie, Erin Brockovich), and arsenic.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) coats many wires and cables, along with a
toxic additive called phthalates. Old-style monitors include pounds of
leadwhich is why they're so heavyand all kinds of monitors can contain
You'll help the Earth by using smaller, lighter devices where possible,
and specifically looking for vendors who reduce, minimize, or eliminate
the use of as much of this junk as possible. Your employees will be particularly
appreciative of your effort to "green" their work environment as part
of your green computing initiative.
More and more of your stakeholders will be aware
that exporting e-waste is common, and that it causes serious problems
wherever it's shipped. In the United States, CRT-style monitorsthe ones
that are full of leadcan't be exported as waste, but other electronics
can. They end up in garage-style recycling operations where totally unprotected
workersoften desperately poor and, as you might imagine, ill
smash up the devices to get at the resellable parts of the materials inside.
Children in these areas show high levels of lead, dioxins, and other toxics
in their blood. You only need to mention "reducing e-waste" as a headline
item in your green computing efforts; your savvier employees and other
stakeholders may well educate others about what this means.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
You can fight back against
manufacturers' power to inflict disposal responsibility and costs on you.
Seek out manufacturers who support Extended Producer Responsibility,
also called "producer take back." This means that manufacturers take
their products off your hands when you're done with them and see to their
safe and sane disposal (which is far easier for them to do than you).
EPR encourages manufacturers to use fewer toxics (to protect themselves),
to design for reusability and recyclability, to create recycling capabilities
adapted to their own products, to create products that last longer,
and to reduce waste.
I mean, think about itthe chances you can make the best use of an
old computer are quite low. But Dell, which has embraced EPR, can do
much more. Facing hundreds and thousands of taken-back computers,
they can resell or donate working computers; reuse working hard disks;
safely extract and resell some hazardous chemicals, while safely disposing
of the others. So EPR not only shifts a burden off you, it creates the opportunity
to make the highest possible reuse of potentially valuable parts of
You can also donate products yourself. The National Christina Foundation
and the World Computer Exchange are two organizations that are
well regarded in this area.
Identify companies that are taking these steps.
Set a minimum standard; for instance, you can refuse to buy from companies
that aren't reducing toxics or embracing EPR. Then give bonus
points for additional steps, such as greening entire supply and distribution
chains. This will encourage a "race to the top" among suppliers, as
well as distributors.
Use this information in making decisions for your green computing
effortsand also in selling the benefits, within your company, to stakeholders,
and externally. Resources such as The Story of Stuff are creating a vocabulary
that you can use to help people understand your work. You can use these
criteria to give a single grade, or multiple grades, to companies as you make
One great resource is the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) at www.
electronicstakeback.com. They keep a report card for computer, TV, printer,
and game console companies. Dell and Apple are among the companies who are
currently near the top of their list. Many green computing issues involve complex trade-offs, and planned obsolescence
is a good example.
The Story of Electronics evocatively describes most products today as
"designed for the dump," and that's a good, catchy phrase. Even a relatively
green product will have a much greater footprint if it lasts for one year rather
than if it lasts for three.
A product that's easy to expand and upgrade may have more embodied carbon,
for instance, but may last longer than a minimal product. You have to
know applicable products and your users really well to be able to make intelligent
choices about who gets what at computer-purchasing time.
Obsolescence is not only a hardware issue. Windows computers are famous
for accumulating debris on their hard disks, noticeably slowing the computer in
as little as a year. Some of this is due to malware and virus attacks; some of it is
due to the way Windows itself operates.
Part of the problem here is motivation. Computer manufacturers like selling
you new stuff. Repair shops like charging you a lot to clean the viruses off your
computer. No one's all that motivated to make the whole system last longer.
The simplest way to keep your Windows computer free of viruses is to keep
all your software CDs and keep your data backed up. Then you can erase everything
on your hard disk, reinstall your software, and restore your data every
year or so. This is a hassle, but could help your computer last years longer.
Apple computers, on the other hand, are known to last longer than Windows
PCsand their lower profile with regard to virus attacks may be a big part of
the reason. However, my prescription for Windows PCs applies to Macs, too:
Keep your software CDs and back up your data. Then erase your hard disk,
reinstall your software, and restore your data every year or so.
Better still for manageability are centralized software products like Citrix,
which centralize your Windows installation and make it much easier to preserve
individual computers from problems. Citrix XenDesktop is a
desktop virtualization product that helps your PCs work a lot less.
The Story of Apple and EPEAT
Apple has given us an excellent example of the power of resource use as an issue
in green computing. This has to do with Apple's long-standing practice of making
relatively closed computers, balanced against the increasing power of green
Apple has long been a member of the green-friendly product registry, the
Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT. Companies
award themselves Gold, Silver, or Bronze EPEAT designations for each of their
products. The EPEAT people then come around and check the product against
the claimed award level.
In mid-2012, Apple introduced new products, including the MacBook Pro's
Retina versions. (A Retina display is a very high-resolution display, about four
times the pixel density of other Macs.) The display, which is power hungry, has
its own glued-in battery to keep all those pixels burning brightly.
Well, gluing anything in is an obvious no-no for an environmentally friendly
product. Glue is itself prone to including toxic chemicals, and gluing makes
recycling much harder. The EPEAT standards require, among much else, that
products be capable of disassembly by a single individual with common hand
tools; gluing generally makes that impossible. So Apple refused to subject its
MacBook Pro Retina versions to assignment at any EPEAT leveland withdrew
from the EPEAT registry entirely.
Now this was a big step. Apple has made many strong green efforts and has
gotten a lot of good press and credibility for doing so. Abandoning a big green
registry was a shocking step. And the ramifications were huge: The city and
county of San Francisco, a combined governmental body, was the first organization
to tell employees they could no longer have Macs. San Francisco refuses
to buy any non-EPEAT-listed products, and every Mac, as well as iPads and
iPhones, was suddenly off the list.
Well, San Franciscans consider themselves cool, and Macs are often considered
the coolest computer, so the employees were nonplussed. More organizations
quickly followed San Francisco in banning Mac purchases, with others
promising to join in.
Among the organizations that was widely quoted as a critic of the Apple
move was the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC), mentioned in the previous
section. Barbara Kyle, the US national coordinator for ETBC, said the
MacBook failed the Design for End of Life criterion, among others (http://
And Apple, after just a few days, caved in. They returned their products
to the EPEAT list, admitting to having made a mistake. Everyone breathed a
sigh of relief, and the sun returned to rising in the East and setting in the West.
The controversy continued, however. Apple quickly awarded the MacBook
Pro Retina a gold star(!). Word circulated that Apple had negotiated an easing
in the standard in return for returning to the EPEAT list (http://techcrunch.
Case Study: Computer Hardware and RSI
Green computing can cover a wide range of concerns. The health of workers in
the electronics industry is now considered a mainstream green computing issue.
But what about the health of workers who use the products?
A longstanding and very serious concern about computer use is RSI, or
Repetitive Stress Injury. All sorts of physical ills are tied to computer use.
The most widely known RSI, because it's so common and otherwise relatively
unusual, is carpal tunnel syndrome. This is soreness of tendons in the wrist
associated with computer keyboard and mouse use.
Some computing companies make fairly strong efforts to provide information
about RSI, and RSI-safer products. Others ignore the issue.
Should you include RSI in your green computing concerns? It's a judgment
call. You can address RSI outside of green computing efforts, without necessarily
I would argue, though, that RSI is a good fit with green computing. It
has to do with the impact of electronics on people, in a similar way to toxics.
And your including RSI in green computing criteria shows that you care just
as much about the health of your employees as you do about the health of,
say, people who disassemble computers, or about saving habitats for polar bears
(good causes in their own right).
You may find that some of the recommendations in this book are inherently
RSI friendly. For instance, the nature of tablet use may make it less likely to
cause RSI than a typical laptop or desktop computer. Just switching between
the two types of devices for different tasks not only saves energy (while the tablet
use is replacing computer use) but also provides variety that takes some of the
"repetitive" out of "repetitive stress injury." HP is among the companies that provides information about using RSI.
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