Sustainable Computer Options

Image: two-screen computer desk set-up. Topic: Sustainable Computer Options
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Two years ago, the computer manufacturer NEC Solutions launched a new product for environmentally conscious computer users. NEC’s PowerMate eco computer was described at the time as “the first all-in-one, fanless ecological PC … specifically [designed] to address the growing environmental problems associated with traditional PCs.”

The PowerMate eco reduced the lead content of its internal parts, used only 100 percent recyclable plastic, and included no toxic coatings to make it flame retardant. In 2003, however, NEC ceased production on PowerMate eco, citing poor sales—and that was the end, for now, of computers targeted to the eco-conscious market.

“There’s no silver bullet if you want to go out and purchase a computer free from toxins,” says Sheila Davis, director of the Clean Computer Campaign at the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC).

In its 2003 computer report card, SVTC gave a passing grade to just one company, the Japanese computer manufacturer Fujitsu, in recognition of its commitment to set deadlines for eliminating lead from its products.

“The Japanese companies are a little bit more aggressive in phasing out some of the toxins,” says Davis. In fact, the SVTC report card notes that the most environmentally friendly products often result from environmental regulations that are more stringent in Japan and Europe.

Although computer toxicity remains a real problem in the computer industry, there are still a number of steps you can take to minimize other problems (from energy efficiency to the use of sweatshop labor) in the computer industry, and to keep from sending the toxic parts of your old computer into a landfill.


Environmental and Labor Issues

Equally egregious is the fact that many companies are shipping used computers either to prisons or overseas for recycling. These workers are paid extremely low wages to pick through the toxic components, looking for useful scrap.

Fortunately, pending legislation in a number of states (including Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island) would require computer producers to take more responsibility for their products. Some of the proposed bills ban certain toxic computer components at the state level, and others mandate that computer producers sponsor their own recycling (or “take-back”) programs. However, there is no current legislation covering the labor issues, and computer watchdog groups agree that no company has a spotless social and environmental record at present.

“Consumers may have to balance their values,” says Robin Schneider, director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment (, pointing out that though Dell, HP, and NEC are industry leaders when it comes to environmental responsibility, none of the three is perfect. NEC is leading on taking steps to reduce the toxic components of some of their machines but declines to sponsor a computer take-back program, she says. Similarly, Dell sponsors a take-back program but has not committed to helping pass progressive local computer legislation.

“We have seen Hewlett Packard (HP) putting their political muscle behind local take-back legislation,” says Schneider, adding that HP and Dell are two computer producers sponsoring take-back programs “In the future, we hope to see Dell follow HP’s lead on supporting clean computer legislation.”

SVTC’s Davis concurs that Dell, HP, and NEC are industry stand-outs, citing the HP and Dell take-back programs, as well as Dell’s phase-out of prison labor for recycling in 2003.

Furthermore, all three companies (as well as Apple and Sony) also produce computer models that meet the requirements of the “Energy Star” program, a voluntary labeling program run by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that identifies computers that require lower levels of energy to run. EPA guidelines call for Energy Star-labeled computers to enter a “low-power” mode when inactive and to use 70 percent less energy overall than conventional computers.

This summer, SVTC plans to release a brand new update to their computer report card at The updated report card will help consumers purchase from a responsible computer company, scoring them not just on toxins, but also on other factors such as energy efficiency, labor issues, and take-back programs.

Minimize the Harm

Until a company unveils a “silver bullet” toxin-free, fully recyclable eco-computer, one of the best strategies for conscious consumers is to save existing computers from ending up in landfills.

According to the National Safety Council’s Environmental Health Center, the average lifespan for a personal computer is about two years, and the SVTC estimates that by the end of this year, Americans will have disposed of more than 300 million obsolete computers. By 2006, according to a report by the Computer Take Back Campaign, more than 150,000 computers will become obsolete in this country every day.

Three main strategies can keep many of these computers from being dumped:

1. Refurbish: “Extending the life of a computer is the most effective way to reduce its environmental impact,” says Luke Lundemo, owner of the Computer Co-op, a computer refurbisher. “With some simple maintenance, a computer can continue to do the tasks for which it was purchased much longer than the conventional expectation of three years.”

Even if upgrading isn’t an option for you, remember that there’s probably someone who doesn’t consider your machine obsolete. You can probably find a student, church, or nonprofit that would be happy with your out-of-date computer. Or, check with the Web site of the Electronics Industries Alliance Consumer Education Initiative to find local and national charities, schools, and other organizations that collect used electronics, including PCs.

2. Reuse: If you must purchase a better computer, consider buying used. Barely used computers that are too out-of-date for a technologically advanced business might be perfect for home use.

“Buying a used computer can be a cost-effective alternative to buying new, in addition to the peace of mind of knowing you prevented another computer from ending up in a landfill,” says Don Mayer, CEO of Small Dog Electronics, an authorized Apple reseller that offers both refurbished and new computers. “They’re greener for both your wallet and the environment.”

3. Recycle: Since Real Green first tackled the computer issue three years ago, more and more computer recyclers have set up shop, some locally, some nationally, accepting computers from all across the country, so no obsolete machines ever have to be consigned to landfills.

The resource link at the end of this article contains a nationwide list of computer recyclers who told Real Green they do all of their recycling in the US, with no overseas shipping or prison labor. Some charge a small fee, while others only ask for shipping costs.

An even cheaper and more eco-friendly option is to check your local yellow pages for computer recycling in your area.

Though there’s no clear leader in the eco-computer market just yet, careful consuming and responsible recycling can help minimize the harm of the computer industry, and help stem the tide of e-waste from filling landfills and leaching toxic chemicals into the environment, both at home and abroad.