What Makes a Gadget Green?
Article from Retrevo's Survival Guide to Greener Living with Electronics:
Saving a few watts of power here and there is not going to make a huge difference in your monthly energy bill but if everyone shaves a few watts off their power needs the benefits could be substantial. That said, the amount of power a gadget uses is only a small piece of the puzzle. Many other features and factors contribute to making a product green. Here’s a list of some of them:
- Raw Materials
Not only does the type of material make a difference but the sheer amount of material contributes to product greenness. Of course, fewer harmful substances and more recycled materials count for a lot but less material overall means less use of raw materials like petroleum in plastics and wood in paper. Less material also means lower shipping weight and better recyclability. So if you want to think green, think small, thin, and lightweight for gadgets.
Organizations like RoHS, a European initiative and EPEAT (see below) give higher ratings to products that reduce or eliminate potentially harmful substances. Some commonly used substances include:
- Cadmium, found in rechargeable batteries
- Mercury, found in displays with small amounts in LCD CCFL backlights
- Lead, commonly found in CRT displays and batteries
- Hexavalent Chromium, usually found in zinc chromate used in anti-corrosion metal plating process
- Brominated biphenyls (PBB) and Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) commonly referred to as brominated flame retardants (BFRs)
- Polyvinal chloride (PVC) and chlorinated plastics used in cable insulation
For more details on these chemicals see this Greenpeace report.
Manufacturers should have a code of conduct like HP’s GSE (General Specification for the Environment) that addresses company and manufacturing environmental values and policies. Environmentally-minded manufacturers should be making every effort to reduce emissions and waste from operations and use non-harmful substances in manufacturing processes. Attention to ISO 14001 specifications and certification helps manufacturers be more green. Manufacturers should also have a take-back service (preferably, free) for products ready for disposal.
- Packaging and Distribution
Lighter products use less energy for transportation. Using most energy efficient transportation methods like shipping also uses less energy. Organizations like Clean Cargo address environmental transportation issues. Better industrial engineering means more efficient moving of products i.e. more products on a pallet. Needless to say, use of recycled materials in packaging means smaller carbon footprints.
More efficient portable products with longer battery life will save energy. Power management features help products save energy. More reliable products need replacing less often reducing waste and products that run cooler require less energy to remove heat.
Server Proliferation is Major Threat
Servers and data centers represent a huge impact on energy use. According to a study by Lawrence Berkeley Lab staff scientist Jonathan Koomey, back in 2005, the total power used by servers represented about 0.6% of total U.S. electricity consumption, Add cooling and the number doubles since half the energy used to power a data center is typically used to remove heat generated by the devices. In fact, according to one study, power and associated cooling expenses are forecast to grow four times as fast as the cost of servers. According to a story in the New York Times, data center energy demand could double by 2011 requiring the equivalent of 25 power plants
Products are lasting longer but new gadgets and gear like smartphones and TVs appear on the market at a fast pace making old ones obsolete. Consideration for how to dispose of your old product is becoming an important environmental issue. Green products should be made with recycling or redistribution in mind. The industry calls this product phase “end-of-life.” There are standards emerging for recycling products here are a few:
- Eliminate paints and coatings that are not compatible with recycling and reuse on large plastic part.
- Easy disassembly of external enclosures.
- All larger plastic components should be marked with a resin identification code according to the international (ISO) standard.
- Products with circuit boards, and other components that contain hazardous materials should be identifiable and removable.
- Enclosures for covered products should be composed of only one type of plastic.
- Products should not contain molded-in or glued-in metal inserts unless they are easy to remove.
- High percentage of product should be made of reusable or recyclable materials.