March 31, 2008

Going Green by Danny Gorog

Have you ever wondered how much power your computer uses while it's switched off? What about your printer that sits idle with its little green light casting an eery glow in the study when it's late in the night. And how much does it cost you for the convenience of using 'standby' mode on your TV and DVD player?
According to Jeremy Faludi from Worldchanging.com, $250 billion per year is spent on powering computers worldwide with 85 percent wasted on idling computers that could have been turned off, while locally, Byteback, a Victorian Government recycling initiative estimates that around 1.5 million of the approximately 14 million computer are not in use and hence are candidates for recycling. The good news is that a large percentage of old computer and printers can be recycled thus saving valuable resources including precious metals which can be re-used.

As the Western world becomes ever more focused on 'going green' it's important to understand how much of an impact your computer usage has on the environment and how to make an informed decision when purchasing new equipment. But choosing green doesn't just include understanding how much power a device uses, but also how responsible the manufacturer is in the design, manufacturing and packaging process, and how willing they are to help you recycle your product when it reaches the end of its useful life.

Rating the environmental friendliness of a device is easy with the the latest Energy Star rating system. Newly revised in July 2007, the Energy Star 4.0 rating system was designed by the US Governments Environmental Protection Agency and has become an international standard for specifying how eco-friendly your computer is. If your computer has an Energy Star 4.0 rating it means the device reduces the amount of energy it consumes when it automatically switches to 'sleep' mode or when it is placed in 'standby' mode by the user. A secondary rating system called EPEAT rates products against 51 different environmental criteria. To achieve an EPEAT rating products must also be Energy Star rated too.

According to Energy Star, compliant devices consume around 75 percent less energy when standby mode is activated - a significant saving when you realise that most of these devices spend up to 60 percent of their lifetime in standby mode. Energy Star also estimate that the 'savings across operating modes is expected to save consumers and businesses more than US$1.8 billion in energy costs over the next 5 years and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equal to the annual emissions of 2.7 million vehicles.

Home electronics, like TVs, DVDs and Stereos that are Energy Star compliant have energy saving features already enabled. But for computers the picture is a little bleaker. While manufacturers can display their equipment as being Energy Star certified, it's up to you as the owner to actually enable power saving mode. In some cases, this can be as simple as turning on 'energy saving' mode at a software (system preference) level or as hard as altering settings in the BIOS prior to boot.


If you do need to alter your BIOS settings (only required on PCs, not on Macs) it's important to know that computers generally have three 'power saving' modes; doze, standby and suspend. Doze reduces the power while the computer is sitting idle by lowering the speed of the processor and powering down other components like the memory and graphics card. Standby mode results in the monitor turning off (or dimming) and the rest of the components powering down. Suspend is the deepest level of power saving and generally results in the monitor and main logic board powering down.


Luckily, most modern computers support these commands through software. In Windows XP, Windows Vista and Mac OS X you can adjust individual power settings to fit it with your computer usage habits. In the Energy Saving control panel you'll find different options to power-down the monitor, put the computer to sleep when it's idle and even settings that let you turn the computer off after a certain time.


While only buying Energy Star and EPEAT rated products is a step in the right direction, owning the most energy efficient hardware is also important. According to Justine Hofman who writes a popular e-newsletter called 'Green Tips' laptops 'use less than a third of the power of a typical desktop PC and are therefore significantly cheaper to run, produce less heat and are often quieter.' Additionally, the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) recommend unplugging appliances that are not in use, and are raising awareness of climate change by running 'Earth Hour', an initiative that will see a list of international iconic buildings and landmarks (including the Melbourne Rialto and Federation Sqaure)veiled in darkness for one hour on March 29.


When you're ready to recycle your computer most major PC manufacturers offer recycling programs. Dell for example will arrange to pick up your old equipment at your home for a flat fee and dispose of it thoughtfully. Other manufacturers like Lenovo and HP are founding members of the Byteback program (http://www.sustainability.vic.gov.au/www/html/2045-byteback.asp) - a free initiative run in conjunction with Sustainability Victoria that provides consumers with locations around the state to safely and responsibly dispose of computers.


According to Byteback most parts of older computers can be efficiently recycled. Plastics that represent over thirty percent of scrap generated by computer waste can be granulated and converted to pellets for easy reuse. Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) are shipped to Noranda Recycling in Canada where a treatment facility extracts valuable metals from them. Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) commonly found in older style computer monitors are carefully recycled and reused in the manufacturer of new CRT displays, while nickel metal hydride, nickel cadmium and lithium batteries are sent to France for recycling. Simple lead batteries are recycled in Australia. Byteback even recycle old packaging material and reused in the manufacturer of new cartons.


A cottage industry of green electronics products has even sprung up in the past few years. Products like the Solio universal hybrid charger can provide enough power to charge up your handheld computers, MP3 players and GPS devices. Other devices like the Wattson can show you how much electricity your home is using at any given moment by transmitting information wirelessly between your electricity meter box and the Wattson receiver unit.


But it's not only left-of-field manufacturers that are taking the environment seriously. In the past month both Dell and Apple have released ultra-portable laptops that have a number of significant environmental breakthroughs. The ThinkPad X300 and the MacBook Air get a EPEAT ratings thanks to their environmentally-conscious technologies such as energy-efficient SSD and arsenic-free LCD glass and mercury-free LED displays. The MacBook Air also receives a big tick thanks to its recyclable aluminum enclosure, and PVC-free internal cables.

As a consumer you're now in the drivers seat to choose the best green computer you can find. Manufacturers know that by producing environmentally friendly computers they can better differentiate themselves from the competition, while helping you become a more responsible global citizen, and reducing your power bills and carbon footprint at the same time.


Fast Facts:

- $250 billion per year is spent on powering computers worldwide

- The average desktop uses between 60 – 250 watts.

- When used eight hours a day, the average desktop computer generates over 600kg in greenhouse gases each year.
- The average laptop uses 15 – 45 watts.
- Putting a computer in standby mode uses 1 – 5 watts, but turning it off at the power point uses zero.


Recycling Contacts:

- Dell Recycling - www.dell.com.au/recycle - 1800 465 890

- Byteback Australia - www.bytebackaustralia.com.au - (03) 9614 205

- Recycling Near You - www.recyclingnearyou.com.au


More Information:

- Energy Star - www.energystar.gov

- Electronic Environmental Assesment Tool - www.epeat.net

- Sustainability Victoria - www.sustainability.vic.gov.au