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Green Computing Update, Part 3: Whole Machines
Jeremy Faludi, 20 Nov 07
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In our update on green computing, Part 1 dealt with data centers, and Part 2 dealt with components. Now Part 3 talks about what most people actually see--the whole machines--and what most people never see--what happens to machines at the ends of their lives. What are greenest computers on the market today, and what's the greenest thing to do with a computer you're getting rid of? Next week, Part 4 will be the final installment, describing how using computers is helping to create a brighter, greener future.


What are the greenest computers?

Green buildings took off when people could agree how to measure the greenness of a building with the LEED standards. Until 2006 there was no such standard for computers, but then came EPEAT, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool. As Joel described it last year:


Much like LEED, which has good/better/best levels of performance, the EPEAT rating system evaluates computer and other electronic products according to three tiers of environmental performance -- Bronze, Silver, and Gold. There are 51 total environmental criteria: 23 required criteria and 28 optional criteria. To qualify for certification as an EPEAT product, a product must conform to all the required criteria. Manufacturers may pick and choose among the optional criteria to boost their EPEAT rating to achieve a higher level as follows. To qualify as "Silver," a product must meet all 23 required criteria plus at least 14 optional criteria; "Gold" requires at least 21 optional criteria in addition to the required items.

Most of the criteria are directly product-related, but some of them operate on the business level. For instance, having a take-back program and having a written sustainability policy. EPEAT isn't free, but it's fast--you don't have to get certification before releasing a product, the organization randomly checks products for compliance with manufacturer claims once they are on the market.

It's easy to see what machines and manufacturers have done well, because EPEAT's front page has a table of bronze, silver, and gold vs. product category (desktop, laptop, monitor, and integrated system.) For instance, there are eight laptops that get EPEAT Gold; they are by Toshiba, Dell, and OLPC. Happy shopping.

Lenovo got a lot of press for its ThinkCentre A61e, proudly touting its use of "up to 90 percent reusable/recyclable materials as well as 90 percent recyclable packaging", but this is nearly meaningless. All plastic and metal are recyclable, the question is does it actually get recycled? A meaningful spec is the one for their ThinkVision L193p monitor, which they say is "the first product in the EPEAT registry to use more than 25% post-consumer recycled content in its plastic parts." It's an excellent product, and in fact is the only EPEAT Gold-rated monitor. The ThinkCentre A61e computer uses a very efficient processor and power supply, so it does deserve credit, but a dozen other desktops from Dell, HP, Zonbu, and Canadian companies MDG and Ciara Tech have higher EPEAT scores.

Another computer to generate a lot of buzz recently is Asus, with their EcoBook concept: its case will be largely made from bamboo instead of plastic, and will be modular so that one damaged part can be replaced without having to replace others. However, it won't hit the market until next year, so there's no way of knowing how green the machine will actually be. (It will definitely be the prettiest, though.) Speaking of releases, Zonbu, who we've mentioned last week and before, just finished beta testing and is now shipping version 1.0. Popular Mechanics gave Zonbu a 2007 Breakthrough Product Award for their machine.

Companies and local governments are beginning to use EPEAT as a criterion in purchasing decisions, much as the US government has used EnergyStar as a purchasing criterion for years. According to CIO.com, "The EPA recently recognized six organizations for their use of EPEAT, including the city of San Jose, Kaiser Permanente, the California Integrated Waste Management Board, the California Department of General Services, healthcare services and IT provider McKesson, and the city of Phoenix. Together, these organizations have saved more than $5 million buying greener equipment."

If you're in the market for a supercomputer, just a few days ago Green500 announced their list of the top 500 most energy-efficient supercomputers, to parallel the Top500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers. In the Green500, nine out of the top ten and all of the top 5 most efficient supercomputers were IBM BlueGene machines.
Also, SiCortex had a great publicity stunt where its latest supercomputer ran on human power from a team of UCLA bicyclists. (Thanks to zupakomputer for the tip!)


What Do I Do With The Computer I Have?

During you computer's life, you can make it greener by using it wisely and by extending its life; beyond that, your main impact is what you do with the computer at the end of its life. Using your computer wisely means treating it like any other appliance and turning it off or putting it to sleep when it's not in use. (This can include just parts of your computer--for instance, if running it as a music server, you can shut the monitor off.) Extending the life of your computer means upgrading it or adding peripherals to keep it useful years longer than it normally would be. This is easier for desktops than for laptops, simply because desktops are much more modular. Many brand-name machines are specifically designed to be easily upgradeable, and all systems cobbled together from third-party components (known as white boxes) are by their nature reconfigurable. Even older systems where the CPU cannot be upgraded further and there's no room for more RAM can sometimes see great benefit from just replacing the video driver, given the more multimedia-rich environment we are now in. If the computer is absolutely not useful as a working computer anymore, it still may be good for a niche application (like the music / entertainment server mentioned above) where it could eliminate the need for a separate CD player, DVD player, etc.


Reselling and Donating

The best way to get rid of your computer is to sell it (or give it) to someone who still finds it useful. Doubtless there are a few older machines--especially ones with large CRT's--which are such energy hogs that two or three more years of electricity use would cause more impact than manufacturing a new replacement; but the only way to know that is to do a life cycle analysis. Most of the time it will make sense to keep old machines running. The two most popular sites to sell used electronics are eBay and Craigslist, simply because they are so popular for all person-to-person selling. SecondRotation is a company that will buy your old cell phone, GPS, digital camera, or laptop (Apple only, so far) for a fixed fee, then resell it. A quick check on the value of my MacBook Pro showed that I would get more selling it on eBay, but that may not be true for some of the other product categories, and they offer the security of a known buyer/seller.

If your computer is too old to talk anyone into buying it, you can donate it. Free Geek has, as they say, been "helping the needy get nerdy since the beginning of the 3rd Millennium". They and other similar groups like Youth for Technology Foundation and Network for Good take old computers, refurbish them if necessary, and give them to low-income schools (both in industrialized countries and developing countries.) TechSoup has a good list of tips for donating a computer.


eCycling

As Elizabeth Grossman wrote in her book, High Tech Trash, the computer industry is responsible for huge amounts of toxic waste. Because of this, Silicon Valley has the highest concentration of Superfund sites anywhere in the US, as you can see on Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's maps, and other high-tech hubs are also scarred. The burden is now shifting, however, to Asia--cities like Taizhou, where mountains of electronic scrap are smelted for recycling by poorly paid laborers with little safety or health equipment and often not even adequate tools to disassemble machines. It isn't all like this, though. Many recyclers in China, the US, Canada, and other countries have good facilities with safe working conditions and emissions controls to limit air and water pollution, with high rates of material recovery that send almost no castoffs to landfills. These recyclers are the best fate your computer can have today.

The Encyclopedia of Earth has a fantastic article on the world of electronics recycling. For instance, "1 metric ton (t) of electronic scrap from personal computers (PC’s) contains more gold than that recovered from 17 t of gold ore. In 1998, the amount of gold recovered from electronic scrap in the United States was equivalent to that recovered from more than 2 million metric tons (Mt) of gold ore and waste." It also describes how one of the biggest mining companies in the world got into the electronics recycling business, and now views e-waste as being at least as important as ore mining to their business. They also mention efforts by computer makers: "IBM operates ten materials recovery plants around the world. In 1997, these operations processed more than 62,000 t of manufacturing scrap equipment, obsolete IBM machines, and customer-returned equipment. More than 90 percent was recycled and less than 5 percent was sent to landfills." Below is a table showing some of the massive quantities of materials recovered, and it is from nearly ten years ago; volumes are much higher today.

ComputerRecycTons.jpg

Recycling old electronics is not easy yet. Even in the EU, where WEEE has been law for some time now, electronics cannot just be dropped into curbside bins along with other recycling, they must be taken or shipped to special places like IT Green. CIO.com quotes a researcher from the IT market analysis firm IDC as saying, "in 2006, obsolete desktops, laptops and servers accounted for 18 billion pounds of electronic trash worldwide, but the major companies involved in e-waste recovery (Dell, HP and IBM) recovered only 356 million pounds—about 2 percent." In the US, according to the EPA, "In 2005, used or unwanted electronics amounted to approximately 1.9 to 2.2 million tons. Of that, about 1.5 to 1.9 million tons were primarily discarded in landfills, and only 345,000 to 379,000 tons were recycled." Clearly, e-waste is a big problem, and one that will only get bigger with time.

The EPA has an eCycling site where it lists tools for finding local recyclers and donation programs, as well as links to some manufacturer and retail recycling programs. (They also have a set of links for recycling cell phones.) An excellent site for finding out about take-backs for computers is the Computer Take-Back Campaign, a group tying to get the US to pass legislation like WEEE. Their list of company programs tells you who takes what back under what circumstances. (For instance, Dell is the best, taking any of their products back for free anytime, and takes other companies' products for free if you're buying a new Dell product; Lenovo may be the worst, not taking anything for free, but if you pay them $30 and pay for shipping, they'll take a product from any maker.) They also have listings of recyclers throughout the US, by state. Their list is better than your local yellow pages, because some recyclers just ship the e-waste to Asia to be disassembled in facilities without health and safety standards, proper tools, or living wages, but some recyclers are responsible and documented. The Computer Take-Back Campaign's listings are screened for responsibility.


Asset Disposal Services

Computer recycling is a big business, because right now only big companies are doing it. According to the EPA, "Currently, 75 percent of the equipment being recycled comes from electronics manufacturers and large organizations (>500 employees)." But even big companies don't have time or expertise to go through their old PC's and decide which can be sold as-is, which can be refurbished or upgraded, and which can only be recycled. So they hire other companies to do it for them. These are the same companies that have handled secure data disposal for companies, because that is a critical issue for companies throwing out computer hardware. Ecological responsibility won't get very far if company files or secrets end up inadvertently being sold on eBay. For historical reasons, then, this industry niche is called "asset disposal".

Director of asset recovery for IBM, Jennifer Van Cise, wrote a thorough summary of asset disposal services available in the market. She described how some hardware is resold, some is recycled, and some is landfilled (all after the company's data is securely wiped, of course.) she even lists different ways that the disposal companies' profits from reselling used hardware are split with the company whose assets they used to be. These deals include fixed-price takeout, shared-revenue sale, and a no-cost option; scrap services may also provide revenue, but are normally a cost.


Recycling Manufacturing Waste - Bad Wafers to Solar Power

Even semiconductor fabs can now get in on the recycling game. IBM announced last month that it is now recycling scrapped wafers as photovoltaic panels, turning waste into solar energy. The solar industry has been plagued by high silicon prices as demand has shot through the roof, and IBM estimates that worldwide, three million wafers are scrapped every year by the semiconductor industry. Until now they've been unable to be reused because the circuits on them, even when half-built or malformed, are still proprietary intellectual property, and can't just be handed out to strangers. IBM has now developed a more efficient process to strip the layers of would-be CPU's, RAM, etc. off the wafers. This makes it economically feasible to strip the wafers back to blank silicon again, making them available for the PV industry or as test wafers. They are already using the process themselves, to great financial gain: "The projected ongoing annual savings for 2007 is nearly $1.5 million and the one-time savings for reclaiming stockpiled wafers is estimated to be more than $1.5 million." They also plan to share the process with the rest of the semiconductor industry, allowing other companies to achieve the same waste savings.


Computers As A Tool For A Greener Future

The reason computers are worth all the expense and waste in the first place is that they are amazingly useful. In just thirty years they have changed national economies, global infrastructure, and personal relationships; they have revolutionized the way science is done, as well as industries--from music to manufacturing. Many of their impacts have been enormously positive, and we are still just beginning to see how big those impacts will be long-term. Next week, Part 4 in the green computing update describes some of the environmental impacts of using computers as tools for business, design, communication, and culture.


image credit: Zonbu and OLPC
[this article was revised to correct a misstatement about EPEAT; thanks to Sarah O'Brien, EPEAT's Outreach Director, for clarification.]

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Comments

lol, cheers for the mention!

Something I forgot about, that may well be on the cards for the next part anyway, is that higher-spec and performance systems are also contributing to a better world via distributed clients running on their machines - there's a lot of different programmes that can be joined (with benefits such as avoiding animal and human experimentation in medicine), the basis of all of them being that unused CPU clock cycles are utilised to assist in the processing of data the projects require.
Even PS3 consoles can be helping out in the same way!


Posted by: zupakomputer on 28 Nov 07

Very nice piece, covers a fair amount of ground without getting too thin. :) But there is one factual error. EPEAT is definitely NOT FREE.

The program was originally developed with a $170,000 grant from... the EPA? not sure... but that cost does not cover ongoing operation. That's funded by...

"The EPEAT License and Subscriber fee is based on the manufacturer’s 2006 combined sales, in US dollars, of all EPEAT-applicable products (currently laptops, desktops, integrated systems, and monitors) in the US and Canada." The maximum is $90,000 for >$10 billion sales; the min is $$1500 for http://www.epeat.net/Manufacturers.aspx

EPEAT is certainly not the world's first "green registry" for computers, and it has some basic weaknesses (self verification for one). Here's an article specifically on EPEAT: http://www.ecopcreview.com/EPEAT.


Posted by: Mike Chin on 3 Dec 07

Very nice piece, covers a fair amount of ground without getting too thin. :) But there is one factual error. EPEAT is definitely NOT FREE.

The program was originally developed with a $170,000 grant from... the EPA? not sure... but that cost does not cover ongoing operation. That's funded by...

"The EPEAT License and Subscriber fee is based on the manufacturer’s 2006 combined sales, in US dollars, of all EPEAT-applicable products (currently laptops, desktops, integrated systems, and monitors) in the US and Canada." The maximum is $90,000 for >$10 billion sales; the min is $$1500 for http://www.epeat.net/Manufacturers.aspx

EPEAT is certainly not the world's first "green registry" for computers, and it has some basic weaknesses (self verification for one). Here's an article specifically on EPEAT: http://www.ecopcreview.com/EPEAT.


Posted by: Mike Chin on 3 Dec 07

Mike, thanks for the correction about EPEAT being paid. A year ago when I was really looking into it, it was free, but it was still very new then; I guess I should've checked that it was still free. It's sad that it's not--if you have to pay for a certification, the certifying body should at least do some auditing to ensure real compliance.

As for the article you reference about EPEAT, I disagree with most of its criticisms. First of all, the idea that you don't know the difference between Gold and Silver ratings because you don't know which points were met is silly. LEED works exactly the same way, and everyone feels quite confident that Gold ratings are superior to Silver, etc. Secondly, when it says China's Greenmark is a superior system, I would have to disagree. Tiered rating systems are inherently better than yes-or-no ones; for an explanation of why, see an earlier article of mine on eco-labels: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/007256.html . The one thing I do agree with is that the lack of auditing is bad. This is a glaring oversight on their part. When EPEAT was free, it made sense; but now that they're charging, they need to give themselves the budget for audits.


Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 4 Dec 07



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