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Green computing - Are your computers costing the earth?

By Mark Walker

Using computers and the Internet responsibly requires everyone to consider the impact their ICT choices make on the environment. There are a number of ways to make your organisation more green aware in its use of ICT.

Current estimates are that ICT waste contributes at least 39% of the 1 million tonnes of electronic waste generated in the UK each year.

There are many different green issues which relate to ICT and they are fast moving into mainstream thinking. These include:

  • Reuse and repair of ICT equipment
  • Safe disposal and recycling of ICT equipment
  • Using less energy and less paper
  • Choices when purchasing new equipment

Do you really need a new computer?

Most of us have a computer system on our desk that does the majority of tasks asked of it perfectly adequately. Word processing, email, web browsing and spreadsheets, for example, require no more computing power than the average system was delivering several years ago.  New computers are more powerful but there may be more gained from better time management than having marginally faster software, and when things do break down it may be cheaper to replace the whole computer rather than upgrade or repair it.

A key environmental issue is that much of the energy required to manufacture a personal computer is used to make high-tech components like semiconductors which are destroyed in the recycling process. Research by the United Nations University into the environmental impact of personal computers, conducted in 2021, found that around 1.8 tonnes of raw material are required to manufacture the average desktop PC and monitor.

The UN report concluded that by far the best way to minimise impact on the environment from a personal computer is to extend its useful life.

Computing Magazine Green Computing Charter 

You can commit to some basic standards and sign up to a Green Computing campaign via the Computing Magazine website:

  • Ensure unused equipment is turned off when it is not being used.
  • Educate staff to the benefits of saving energy and recycling.
  • Establish a code of practice designed to minimise unnecessary printing.
  • Identify ICT management practices that reduce power consumption.
  • When purchasing new ICT equipment, choose energy-saving devices that have been manufactured in an environmentally-conscious fashion.
  • Dispose of old hardware responsibly; send old PCs to be reconditioned and recycled.
  • Find out how much energy your ICT systems use and monitor ongoing consumption levels.

Getting more from an old computer

The pressure to upgrade hardware and software drives the multi-billion pound ICT industry. Given the environmental cost of producing a new computer, however, it is always worth looking for ways to breathe new life into an aging computer before buying a new one:

  • Think carefully about whether you really need a new computer. Could upgrading your existing computer serve the same purpose?
  • Upgrade the memory or hard disk space as much a possible;
  • Many small offices now have networks, which store documents. They can also be used to share applications, so that the computer on your desk doesn’t need as much computing power;
  • Open Source system software such as Ubuntu may deliver the same features as the latest version of Windows but perform faster because it uses less processing power;
  • Older laptops and desktop computers will usually support the use of a USB wireless stick – a small gadget like a USB memory stick which plugs in when needed to provide fast Wi-Fi access;
  • Strip your software down to the essentials – don’t use valuable space or processor memory on programmes and files you don’t use;
  • Although Microsoft Office may slow to a crawl on your computer perhaps smaller more specialist programmes won’t. Try OpenOffice for an alternative;
  • Keep your computer well-tuned. You’re more likely to want to keep a computer longer if it runs better.

Of course this advice is very general - specific solutions depend entirely on what computer you have and what you’re trying to do with it. Ask for advice from your ICT suppliers, or get some help from local environmental or recycling projects, before deciding to dump your computer and get another.

Recycling computers

Equipment that is beyond its useful life for one organisation may be of use to someone else. Computers can be refurbished and passed on to schools, other charities or individuals, both in the UK and abroad.

Some organisations that recycle computers have a minimum specification that they will pass on and some will only come and collect a minimum number of units. Some will ask for a donation or charge a fee and others only accept equipment that is working as they have to pay to dispose of anything that can’t be used.

Ask your local networks about whether you have a community-based computer recycling project in your area. Ask your local Council, or have a look on websites such as Donate a PC, Waste Online or Envocare for a wide range of contacts and advice.

Disposing of ICT equipment

In the end most hardware will fail. Screens become difficult to use and cause eye strain, busy printers or CD drives begin to fail and parts may be difficult to repair. However most ICT equipment contains harmful or toxic elements and are not safe to be thrown in a skip. The European Union’s WEEE Directive (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) is changing the face of recycling by enforcing the safe disposal of electronic equipment.

One aim of the Directive is to create a market for organisations who will dispose of ICT equipment safely. Another goal is that companies that manufacture and/or supply electrical and electronic goods start collecting waste equipment from households who purchase it. Companies are then required to use the collected waste in an eco-friendly manner, either by ecological disposal, reuse or refurbishment.

This is creating incentives to reuse and repair equipment as well as creating a market for disposal companies: a Google search for ‘ICT disposal UK’ reveals hundreds of businesses offering ICT disposal services, most referring to the WEEE Directive.

Use your existing networks to find out who can safely dispose of ICT waste in your area. Your local council may provide advice or accept individual PCs at its own facilities. Local environmental and recycling projects should be aware of the WEEE Directive and be able to advise – they may even have their own disposal service.

Visit www.weeeman.org to learn about the environmental impact of disposing of waste electronic and electrical equipment. You can also calculate your own current carbon footprint and find out how to minimise its impact.

Receiving or buying recycled computers

Donate a PC provides a matching service between people with computers to give away and good causes looking for a second hand PC, printer or other equipment.

A list of not for profit options for disposing of computers is produced by Waste Online. Go to Waste Online and click on the Information Sheets section.

Take a look at the Knowledgebase article about Accepting Second-hand computers to see more about the questions to ask and the issues that arise. These include:

  • Has the PC been refurbished to acceptable quality and safety standards?
  • Does it fit in with your organisation's IT strategy or the organisation's policies?
  • Will it run the operating system (OS) that you are using?
  • Does it come with an operating system and license?
  • Is there a warranty or any after-sales service
  • Does the PC come with the hardware you require, such as a network card?
  • Are you able to specify particular needs, such as memory supplied with it?
  • Does the PC come with a monitor, keyboard and mouse?
  • If you want a laptop, can you be sure it's not been dropped down the steps at Bank tube station?

Buying green computers

The UK computer market is worth tens of billions of pounds and there is a huge range of choice, including environmentally friendly and ethical options. Your decision may be based on price, quality, how long the machine will last and its design. To make a green or ethical choice you may also want to think about the environmental impact of the manufacturing process, any specific energy-saving features and the ease with which the computer can be recycled when you’ve finished with it. It’s also good to know that the company you are buying from is not just interested in making money but also interested in the environment and human rights.

If you are buying a PC there are a number of standards in place to gauge how much energy it uses or how it might impact the environment at the end of its life. One to look for is the eco-label, an EU initiative which sets standards for different product groups, promoted to manufacturers as a marketing advantage. For personal computers the standard includes reduced energy consumption during use and stand-by; limited use of substances harmful to the environment and health; encouraging recycling; easy up-grades to extend useful life; and reduced solid waste production through take-back policy. 

Similarly the US Energy Star label identifies equipment which uses 70% less energy than a standard desktop computer. But this relates only to energy usage and takes no account of other factors.

The Ethical Consumer Magazine website includes information from their most recent survey of best ICT companies. For much more detailed information Epeat is a US-based site that lists a range of manufacturers and compares their products, awarding bronze, silver and gold status according to various green criteria.


About the author

Mark Walker
ICT Champion for the South East of England and is based at SCIP

Glossary

Hard Disk, Hardware, ICT, Monitor, Network, Operating System, Processor, Software, USB, Website, Wi-Fi, Wireless, WWW

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Published: 26th March 2021 Reviewed: 25th March 2021

Copyright © 2021 Mark Walker

User comments and discussion

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SimonP
11th August 2021If you're getting a new computers then this guide might help in choosing which model: http://www.epeat.net/search.aspx

You can get an overall result (banded by Gold, Silver or Bronze), or if you click on 'optional criteria' you can make your own selection from the following:
- Reduction/elimination of environmentally sensitive materials
- Materials selection
- Design for end of life
- Product longevity/life cycle extension
- Energy conservation
- End of life management
- Corporate performance
- Packaging

You can even select by numerous sub-categories, from "Elimination of intentionally added cadmium" to "Documentation of reusable packaging".

Alternatively, you can look up your own model and see what material it's got in it....

abamaison
7th December 2021From Techsoup: 5 Things You Can Do in 5 Minutes to Reduce Your Power Use – Part 1
http://bit.ly/71Yubw

[email protected]
30th November 2021Green ICT.org.uk, a Global Action Plan programme, has published the Green ICT Handbook. It can be downloaded at http://greenict.org.uk/handbook (pdf, 500Kb). Adam Clamp from The Green IT Company reviewed the handbook in issue 157 of Computanews http://www.lasa.org.uk/publications/computanews/

GreenITmust
11th February 2021You really need to make sure that you delete all the data off any data bearing ICT equipment before you sell on it. This is still true even if you send your kit for recycling as often the working part might be sold on separately and this might be data bearing e.g. your hard drive.

(see also http://www.ictknowledgebase.org.uk/disposingoftechnology)

abamaison
11th February 2021A couple of other useful links regarding safe deletion of hard drives... http://www.pcworld.com/article/157126/How_to_Completely_Erase_a_Hard_Drive.html, http://pcsupport.about.com/od/toolsofthetrade/tp/erase-hard-drive.htm