Greener Home-Computing

Photo: iStockphoto.com/kertlis
How to use computers in a more environmentally responsible manner

So, the story goes that computers substantially help reduce dependence on and waste of material items – notably paper. This is often little more than a fairytale, as computing itself can be a voracious consumer of energy and resources. With this in mind, we explored how your family’s computer usage needs to change.

Expert With a “Green Thumb”

Brian Stewart of Athabasca University, an online university in Alberta, says, “The goal of Green IT is to continuously reduce the environmental impact of computing and to effectively use computing to reduce the impact of other activities.” Brian introduced a waste reduction course at AU and has been endeavouring to reduce the environmental impact of the university’s computing infrastructure, the lifeblood of any online institution.

Green IT began way back in the Dark Ages of 1992 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began the ENERGY STAR program, which identified devices that met reduced energy usage specifications. But Brian feels that the greatest scope of impact will be achieved through the ways computers can “dematerialize” our lives through such applications as e-books and e-tickets, or reducing travel through video and web conferencing. What? No continental breakfast?

Would Kermit The Frog Change His Tune?

It’s not easy being Green – or more to the point, it isn’t straightforward. What should we look for when purchasing a computer to make it as Green as possible? Brian warns against purchasing a new computer simply to be “greener:” “If you buy a computer because it is the greenest but that doesn’t meet your needs, you are likely to be very dissatisfied with the purchase and frustrated with the whole Green thing.” Unnecessary replacement also contributes to the whole “footprint” problem and will not reduce carbon emissions unless you use your computer more than 16 hours a day (in which case, is your biggest problem really an inadequate computer?). As for brands, because designs change so frequently, he recommends that users research the product through such organizations as Climate Savers Computing Initiative (CSCI). The Green Grid or The Green Electronics Council (EPEAT).

Someone to Watch Over You

EcoSense (up to now known as EPEAT) is an environmental ratings program whose mission is to “Operate the most successful global environmental rating system for electronic products, helping connect purchasers to environmentally preferable choices, and thereby benefiting producers who demonstrate environmental responsibility and innovation” (from the EPEAT website).

Get The Lead Out!

EcoSense rates products on performance criteria from the whole lifecycle. While PCs and monitors have been their focus, plans are to soon include imaging equipment and televisions. They became concerned with the detrimental effects increased computing was having in a number of areas. For instance, a single monitor used to contain as much as 10 lbs of lead. This has been almost completely eliminated and yet most of the heavy metal content in landfills is still attributable to discarded electronic equipment. EcoSense also pays significant attention to the presence of power management software, citing the enormous energy, lifespan and cost savings of simply turning computers offor applying automatic power settings. “If every home office product purchased in the United States this year met ENERGY STAR requirements, consumers would save more than $100 million in annual energy costs and prevent release of 1.4 billion pounds of greenhouse gases, equivalent to emissions from 125,000 cars.” A lot of benefit for simply pressing a button.

Old-School Green – The Three Rs

Brian Stewart harkens back to the maxim “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Most importantly, reduce. Reduce purchases of equipment, energy consumption and replacement. Recycle by approaching companies specializing in the field or purchase from producers who provide options to return used materials to them. And don’t forget to reuse. If you decide to upgrade while your device still functions well, there are plenty of users for whom a computer with modest capabilities is more than sufficient. Consider donating your old, reliable device. Consider my mother, who still thinks a laptop is a portable lunch tray.

Ditch The Pitch

EcoSense also advocates being a judicious consumer: don’t let the salesperson convince you that you need Call of Duty capability when all you do is check out Pinterest for recipe ideas. Look for the EcoSense rating. At this point, you can find EPEAT’s label (soon to be EcoSense – the name change more intuitively reflects the meaning of the designation) on laptops, monitors and store shelf information. Their goal is to continually expand their presence within large manufacturers and retailers in order to facilitate consumers’ growing desire to make better choices. The ironic results of a “paperless” society are greater consumption of energy and other resources, increased catering to the insatiable “upgrade beast,” whose handlers have convinced us that we must always possess the latest/fastest/sexiest or be left behind in hapless obsolescence, and creation of a throw-away culture where it is more practical for consumers to replace than repair. If we become a little more conservative and educated in our personal, business and consumer habits, we can conceivably operate our devices for longer with fewer adverse consequences, a clearer conscience and possibly a healthier bank account. And maybe I can get Grandma to become cyber-savvy – but do I really want to see her drinking Mojitos on Facebook?

Did you know?

  • Leaving PCs on 24/7 constitutes as much as 75% of their power consumption and wears them out faster.
  • Fujitsu estimated that a desktop computer had a five year lifecycle footprint of approximately 700 kg CO2e, half of which was energy usage, the other half manufacture, assembly and shipping – also called “embedded carbon.”
  • CO2e means “carbon dioxide equivalent” - the unit of measurement that defines the global warming potential (GWP) of the six greenhouse gases.
  • In 2008, a course created by Tom Worthington at the Australian National University was the only Green IT course available.
  • 42 countries and over 45 manufacturers have over 2800 products registered with EcoSense. Some of the companies include the U.S. and Canadian governments, Ford Motor Company, HSBC, and Marriott.
  • CSCI hosts an annual Twitter/Facebook contest called “Retweet for Earth Hour and Power Management.”

Practical advice:

  • Mobile computers are more energy efficient than desktops, but desktops are higher performance and longer lasting.
  • You can find the energy saving options in the Power Management menu on your computer.
  • Power down the outlet, not just the device, because the supply continues to draw power even when the electronics are turned off.
  • Don’t use screen savers – use the power settings to turn your screen off instead.
  • Only print what is necessary to have on paper and use remanufactured toner cartridges.
  • If your retailer is not aware of your product’s EcoSense rating, you can send them to www.epeat.net/who-are-you/channel/.
  • Provincial or local environmental authorities can tell you where to bring electronics for recycling, or when e-waste collection is scheduled in your area.


Do your research:

  • What are your needs? Does the device meet or unnecessarily exceed them?
  • How long do you intend to keep the device?
  • Is the device upgradable, or repairable?
  • Have you compared it with other brands?
  • Is the device certified with ENERGY STAR or does it bear the EPEAT label?
  • Does the company facilitate environmentally responsible disposal?
  • Does the company have a green or sustainable element to its mission?
  • HP, Dell and Apple provide information on the carbon footprint of their products or their own Green initiatives.

 

EcoParent is a national magazine for families that want to make healthier, greener lifestyle choices. Fun and inspirational in tone - and never judgmental - it is Canada's premiere publication for the conscientious parent. Food, fashion, books, travel, and so much more!