Image: Lenovo ThinkCentre desktop computer and monitor
Lenovo
Lenovo's ThinkCentre "A" series line of desktops includes models that are Energy Star-compliant, meaning the computers consume less power, emit less heat and make less noise.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 7/22/2008 12:02:08 PM ET 2008-07-22T16:02:08

Take one look at the Web site of any major computer company and you will see details of “green” initiatives about environmentally friendly measures dealing with the toxic materials in PCs and the excessive energy use they require.

PC manufacturers are working hard to sound PC, and some are taking it seriously, saying they’re doing everything they can to minimize the negative effects their practices and products have on the environment.

“We consider it our ethical responsibility to implement best practices that preserve resources and minimize our impact on the environment,” said Rachelle Arcebito, environmental communications manager of Sony Electronics, a leader in green practices.

The company has been busy cutting electrical consumption of its desktop and notebook PCs, and eliminating toxic brominated flame retardants and PVC from components. Sony also has put in place a chemical management program that eliminates heavy metals and other toxic materials from the company’s manufacturing facilities and outside suppliers.

Dell, ranked the top U.S. PC manufacturer by Gartner research, says its OptiPlex desktops are 50 percent more energy-efficient than similar systems from 2005, and that it has stepped up programs to eliminate or reduce hazardous substances in its products.

Image: Dell OptiPlex computer
Dell's OptiPlex 740 has default Energy Smart configurations, as well as tools like an online energy calculator.

“The new era of environmental leadership will be defined by businesses and consumers working together to improve the planet,” said David Lear, director of Dell's worldwide environmental affairs.

Spend a few minutes looking over Greenpeace's quarterly "Guide to Greener Electronics," and it becomes clear that greening the PC is no simple task.

A Gartner research report from June 2008 noted that, for the first time, the number of computers in use worldwide has surpassed 1 billion. Along with this staggering figure, a Gartner analyst estimated that over 35 million computers across the globe will be dumped in landfills this year with no regard to their toxic materials.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, only 12.6 percent of 2.6 million tons of electronics waste in the U.S. was recycled in 2005, the latest year for which figures are available.

Greenpeace’s quarterly report, now in its 8th edition, may not be the only way to measure corporate greenness, but it's nothing if not comprehensive.

Companies are ranked according to points given to 15 criteria in the categories of toxic chemicals, energy and e-waste. As of June, Sony came out the greenest with 5.1 out of a possible 10 points. Dell, tied with Sony for 2nd place in March, is now in 5th place with 4.5 points. HP, the nation's second largest computer manufacturer, scored 4.3 and Apple received 4.1.

“Progress is being made, but we are far from any company legitimately claiming the mantle of green electronics company,” said Casey Harrell, toxics campaigner with Greenpeace International.

Check before buying
While manufacturers are gradually making headway in environmental responsibility, consumer vigilance is needed to assure green computing not only stays on track, but increases.

And that’s where you can help. When it’s time to buy a new computer, check the manufacturer's Web site, or call customer service, for information on toxic materials, energy efficiency and recycling programs.

So far, European standards are tougher than those in the United States. With no equivalent U.S. program in place, look for products that adhere to the European Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive, which eliminates six key toxic chemicals from PC manufacturing, including lead, mercury, cadmium and flame retardants.

In the United States, voluntary Energy Star ratings, similar to those for other appliances, were first applied to computers last year. The federal government’s Energy Star Web site includes a search tool to find products that comply with the standards.

Greenpeace's Harrell recites the organization’s mantra: “Reduce, Reuse and THEN Recycle.” That means if you can hang onto your current PC before buying a new one, try to do that. A computer that’s upgraded with new parts, such as a CPU, or larger-capacity hard drive, will prolong the machine’s lifespan.

Once you decide to ditch a computer for good, you can either donate a working PC, or find an environmentally responsible recycling program. The National Cristina Foundation will match donors of working PCs with pre-screened charitable organizations, for example. The UsedComputer.com site offers a lengthy list of donation and recycling programs.

Most computer manufacturers have recycling programs. Dell leads the way with free recycling of any Dell product even if you don’t buy a new Dell. Apple offers free recycling of any computer product, regardless of brand, as long as you buy a new or refurbished computer or monitor from them directly.

The Electronic TakeBack Coalition Web site has a handy guide to manufacturer recycling programs, and a locator tool for nationwide recycling programs.

Ways to green up what you've got
If you plan on keeping your computer for awhile, there are several ways to green it up. Heather Clancy, co-host of ZDNet's GreenTech Pastures blog, points to energy use as one area to curb.

“The simple act of turning a desktop computer off overnight could save $40 a year in electricity costs,” she said. “The EPA estimates that about 60 percent of all computers are left on at night.

“The best way for a person to improve the profile of their existing PC is to adopt some power management software,” she said. She recommends products from Faronics, 1E, BigFix and Verdiem.

Another energy drain is a PC's power supply. Much of the electricity wasted by PCs and servers occurs when AC electricity is converted to DC, which is what runs in electronics circuitry, Clancy said.

80 Plus, an electric utility-funded organization pushing for increased efficiency in computer power supplies, offers a directory of PC and power supply vendors with certified products on its Web site.

A simple and accurate method for measuring computer power usage yourself is the $20 Kill A Watt monitor, made by P3 International. The device goes into an electrical outlet and displays the killowatt/hour use of any appliance plugged into it.

For those who prefer a hands-off approach, iYogi, a remote computer support service based in India, can help green your PC from afar. For $10, an iYogi representative will conduct an energy audit of your PC, develop an energy-saving plan based on your usage and remotely configure your PC to maximize energy efficiency.

“Each year consumers and businesses purchase more computers and put to them to use,” said Vishal Dhar, president of iYogi. “But it’s not just the sheer number of computers that is driving energy consumption upward. The way that we use computers also adds to the increasing energy burden.”

Taking simple steps like shutting down your PC, or putting it to sleep when it’s not in use, are easy to implement. Getting the PC manufacturers to uniformly adopt a new, greener outlook will prove more difficult.

Harrell of Greenpeace sees it likes this: “Green products should not be a niche market — they should be the market, replacing the outdated way of making electronics.”

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