Computing the True Cost of Computers
By Scot Case and Kelly Panciera
It is hard to imagine how a purchasing office or any other office could function today without computers. Purchasing professionals and office workers depend on computers to communicate, conduct research, process transactions, and store information. While computers (usually) make life easier, they do come at a cost. According to a study conducted for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), PCs and monitors account for nearly 40 percent of the annual electricity consumption of office electronics and telecommunications. There also is growing concern some chemicals present in computer components and used during the manufacturing process pose human health risks. Additionally, with the average computer becoming obsolete within three years, disposing of old computers has become a big challenge for local governments because they are too hazardous for most landfills.
As purchasing officials recognize the operational, disposal, and human health costs associated with their computer purchases, they are quickly discovering that the best way to minimize the costs is to use their purchasing power to encourage manufacturers to produce products that are less hazardous, more energy efficient, and easily recycled. Greener computers might just be a purchase away.
Buying Greener Computers
Growing numbers of governments and other institutions are reducing the human health and associated environmental effects of their computer purchases by including environmental considerations in their specifications. Some environmental criteria, such as energy efficiency, can be easily identified through existing eco-labeling programs such as Energy Star. Other criteria, like reduced toxicity and design for recyclability, can be more challenging for purchasers to identify and more difficult for manufacturers to address. Government purchasers, however, are finding successful ways of including these criteria and are demonstrating a growing demand for safer computers.
The following are a few of the institutions already including environmental considerations in their computer purchases:
The City and County of Denver, CO, issued a Request for Response (RFR) in March 2003 that required vendors to provide information on corporate environmental responsibility practices and policies, compliance with Energy Star, third-party certifications, take-back and end-of-life management services, and use of reduced, recycled, and recyclable packaging.
Indiana, one of the nation’s top 20 state government IT purchasers, issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) in 2004 that indicated a preference for computers with environmental features. It included reduction of hazardous substances, design for recycling, upgradeability, Energy Star products, and manufacturer take-back programs as some of the environmental considerations.
Massachusetts issued an RFR for computers in March 2004 that included provisions for reduced toxic materials, design for recycling, energy efficiency, recycled content, recycled or reduced packaging, and manufacturer take-back programs. Massachusetts received bids from 15 manufacturers and resellers in response to the RFR and estimates it will buy $74 million worth of electronics annually. Massachusetts estimated that in FY2004 alone, using Energy Star computer equipment saved the state approximately 4.3 million kilowatt-hours (kw.-hrs.) of electricity and prevented the release of 3,110 tons of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of taking 650 cars off the road.
Portland, OR, released in January 2005 an RFP for computers, laptops, and servers that included mandatory requirements for Energy Star equipment, environmental performance reporting, and take-back and end-of-life management services. The RFP also included a preference for computers that have reduced toxic constituents, take into account user health and safety, are designed to be recyclable, and are manufactured in an environmentally responsible manner. Portland estimates it will spend about $2 million in computer equipment through the contract.
The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) issued a Request for Quotes (RFQ) in spring 2003 that included Energy Star requirements. The RFQ also indicated that DOI will be considering additional factors such as reduced hazardous substances, recycled content, design for recycling, upgradeability, reduced packaging, and take-back options in the future. This spring, when DOI renegotiates its $40-million-a-year nationwide contract, the agency plans to incorporate these additional environmental criteria more formally. DOI also is an active participant in the Federal Electronics Challenge, a voluntary program for federal agencies that encourages the environmentally preferable procurement and end-of-life management of electronics. For additional information on the challenge program, visit www.govinfo.bz/4591-203.
The Western States Contracting Alliance (WSCA), a purchasing cooperative of 15 western states, purchased $3.9 billion in computer equipment from 1999 to 2004. WSCA’s latest RFP for computers, issued in February 2004, asked bidders to provide information on their take-back options, third-party certifications, compliance with international directives such as the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substance (RoHS) Directives, and Energy Star equipment.
Including Environmental Criteria for Computers in Contracts
To help institutions buy more environmentally preferable computers and negotiate end-of-life management services, a network of more than 50 institutional purchasers, government officials, and environmental organizations, facilitated by the Center for a New American Dream, developed a set of purchasing guidelines. “The Principles for Purchasing Environmentally Preferable Computers, Monitors, and Peripherals” includes recommendations for buying safer computers. Massachusetts, Portland, and other institutions already have used the recommendations as mandatory or desirable criteria in their computer solicitations.
Some of the environmental considerations addressed by the purchasing recommendations include the following:
- Less Toxic Materials— Eliminating or reducing hazardous, carcinogenic, and mutagenic substances.
- Upgradeability— Extending the life of computers by including features such as expandable memory and modular design.
- Design for Recycling— Designing computers so that components can be easily separated for recycling. This includes avoiding glues and welded connections, clearly labeling plastics, and using universal fasteners.
- Energy Star— Requiring Energy Star-labeled computers that meet the latest federal energy efficiency standards.
- End-of-Life Management— Incorporating provisions that provide for environmentally sound reuse, recycling, and/or disposal of computers.
- Take-Back Requirements— Requiring the manufacturer to take back computers after their useful life for environmentally sound reuse, recycling, and/or disposal.
Several purchasers also have referenced the European Union’s WEEE and RoHS directives. WEEE makes manufacturers financially responsible for the take-back of their electronic products. RoHS calls for the elimination of four metals (cadmium, mercury, lead, and hexavalent chromium) and two brominated flame retardants (PBBs and PBDEs). Both directives take effect in 2006. The purchasing principles and additional information about greener computers are available online at www.govinfo.bz/4591-204.
To further assist purchasers in identifying specific computer models that can be considered more environmentally preferable and to give manufacturers a market advantage for design improvements, EPA funded the development of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). The tool was developed through a consensus process by a group of institutional purchasers, manufacturers, trade associations, environmental organizations, and other stakeholders. It addresses many of the same issues as the purchasing principles using a rating system.
Beginning in early 2006, desktop computers, laptops, and monitors can achieve EPEAT designation at one of three levels—bronze, silver, or gold—depending on their environmental performance. All products seeking EPEAT bronze qualification will have to meet 22 man-
datory criteria. Manufacturers can choose among a menu of optional criteria to achieve higher qualification levels.
Efforts were made to coordinate EPEAT criteria with existing programs, such as Energy Star standards, and international electronics initiatives, such as the WEEE and RoHS directives. EPEAT does not cover a few issues considered important by some purchasers, such as prohibitions on the use of prison workers for computer disassembly and recycling or compliance with the international Basel Agreement’s prohibitions on export of hazardous wastes to developing countries. Purchasers concerned about these issues plan to reference them as supplemental mandatory or desirable criteria. Additional information about EPEAT can be found at www.govinfo.bz/4591-206.
Human Health and Environmental Impacts of Computers
Institutions are becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of computers throughout the product life cycle—from the human health and environmental impacts during the computer manufacturing pro-cess, to the impacts when using a computer, to the final impacts related to computer recycling or disposal. The most common considerations include energy consumption, the presence of hazardous substances in computer components, and computer disposal or other end-of-life management issues.
With technology becoming more powerful, computers are consuming more and more energy when we use them—and when we do not. Estimates show that up to 50 percent of the electricity powering office computers takes place when they are not actually being used—when workers are talking on the phone, away at meetings, or gone for the day.
Institutions often can avoid wasting energy and money by purchasing computers meeting the federal government’s Energy Star standard. Energy Star computers enter “sleep” mode after a period of inactivity, which allows them to remain on while saving energy. The computer returns to “active” mode with a touch of the keyboard or mouse.
Besides conserving energy, the sleep mode can help computer equipment run cooler and prevent unnecessary wear and tear. It reduces computer maintenance costs and can even reduce a building’s air conditioning expenses.
The power management features of Energy Star computers must be activated in order to reap these benefits. As a result, many institutions now ask vendors to activate Energy Star power management features before delivery and provide any necessary technical support. When the computer will not be used for an extended period of time—overnight, for example—it is more
energy efficient to turn computers off. This practice not only saves energy and reduces electricity costs, but also further extends the life of the product. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 11 billion kw.-hrs., or $935 million, could be saved each year if the 55 million office computers in the United States used Energy Star power management features on their monitors. The carbon dioxide reductions from this energy savings represent the equivalent of taking 1.5 million cars off the road.
The process of manufacturing computers can release hazardous substances into the environment, threatening the health of humans, fish, and wildlife. The hazardous substances present in computers pose the additional risk of leaching into air, water, and soil when landfilled, incinerated, or improperly recycled.
Hazardous substances found in computers include:
- Cadmium, used in batteries, surface mount device (SMD) chip resistors, infrared detectors, semiconductors, and older cathode ray tubes (CRTs), can cause brittle bones, lung damage, and kidney disease. Approximately 2 million lbs. of cadmium are present in the 315 million computers that became obsolete between 1997 and 2004.
- Lead is most commonly used in solder and the glass of CRTs. Lead is a cumulative toxin that can cause damage to the nervous system, reproductive system, and kidneys.
- Mercury is used in LCD and flat panel displays, switches, printed wiring boards, and batteries. Exposure to high levels of mercury can cause chronic brain and kidney damage.
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used in computer cabling and housings, is found among the 13.8 lbs. of plastic present in the average computer. PVC not only is difficult to recycle, but it releases dioxins and furans during its production and incineration. Dioxin is known to cause cancer and can also cause skin problems, reproductive disorders, and developmental effects.
- Brominated flame retardants are used in computer plastics, circuit boards, cables, and connectors to reduce the risk of fire. Studies have shown that brominated flame retardants, such as polybrominated bi-phenyls (PBBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), may be endocrine disruptors that interfere with human hormone functions.
- Hexavalent chromium is used to protect untreated and galvanized steel from corrosion and to harden steel housings. Even in small concentrations, hexavalent chromium can cause strong allergic reactions and may even cause DNA damage. The 315 million computers that became obsolete between 1997 and 2004 contained approximately 1.2 million lbs. of hexavalent chromium.
In addition to the environmental and human health concerns associated with hazardous substances in computers, disposing of electronic waste can prove expensive. An additional 63 million computers are projected to become obsolete in 2005. Proper handling and disposal of obsolete electronic equipment could collectively cost more than $10.7 billion. Unfortunately, state and local governments likely will bear much of this financial burden.
Some states have taken measures to address the potential environmental, human health, and financial problems associated with the disposal of electronic waste. Massachusetts, California, Minnesota, and Maine, for example, have classified CRTs as hazardous waste, banning them from landfills. An effort also is under way to develop model legislation to manage obsolete computers and other electronics. Prompted by requests from concerned legislative leaders in the Northeast, the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) and the Council of State Governments/Eastern Regional Conference are coordinating an initiative to pass unified electronic waste legislation in 10 states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont).
If obsolete computers are not landfilled, they still need to be properly disposed of, preferably reused or recycled. But according to the National Safety Council, only about 11 percent of discarded electronics is recycled. A recent report by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition estimates that of the computers currently collected for recycling, 50 to 80 percent are exported to developing countries such as China, India, and Pakistan. Weak environmental laws and low standards for worker protection often exacerbate the environmental and human health problems associated with computer disposal in these countries. Computer waste, for example, often is stockpiled, disassembled, and even burned outdoors. Potential health and environmental hazards resulting from this practice include the release of toxins through open burning of plastics, exposure to toxic solders, and the contamination of rivers by acid dumping.
Computers will remain a part of our daily lives for the foreseeable future. Purchasing professionals have the power to help make that future free of the resulting wastes and human health hazards associated with their computer purchases. Concerned institutions already are buying less toxic, energy-efficient, upgradeable computers that can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or disposed of. In doing so, these purchasers are reducing the volume of electronic waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators, protecting human health in the process. As tools such as “The Principles for Purchasing Environmentally Preferable Computers, Monitors, and Peripherals” and EPEAT make it easier to buy safer computers, more and more purchasers will be joining this trend. Doing anything else just does not compute.
Editor’s Note: Scot Case is the Director of Procurement Strategies and Kelly Panciera is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Dream, where they help institutional purchasers buy less polluting products from less polluting companies. For more information, visit www.govinfo.bz/4591-208 or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Energy Star Raises the Bar
Government purchasers have changed the computer industry before. In the mid-1990s, the federal government began requiring computer equipment to meet the energy efficiency requirements of the Energy Star program. Since the federal government buys 7 out of every 100 computers worldwide and has an information technology (IT) budget of almost $60 billion, manufacturers responded quickly by producing more energy-efficient computers. Today, almost 80 percent of computers, 95 percent of monitors, and 99 percent of printers meet the Energy Star standard.
The Energy Star program currently is raising the standard to encourage even greater innovation.
Energy Star released stricter standards for monitors in January 2005. Monitors must now meet energy-saving requirements while in “active” mode in addition to “sleep” mode. EPA estimates that the new requirements will save approximately 5 million metric tons of carbon emissions—the equivalent of taking more than 3 million cars off the road.
For additional information on the Energy Star program, visit www.govinfo.bz/4591-202.
Green Computer Report Card
Responding to consumer demand, the computer industry is beginning to address the environmental and human health concerns associated with computers. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition tracks the environmental performance of leading computer manufacturers through their annual Computer Report Card. The latest edition lists Hewlett Packard (HP), Dell, and NEC as the leaders in the field, although the report also identifies continued opportunities for improvement. The full Computer Report Card is available at www.govinfo.bz/4591-205.
To find a complete list of resources for “Computing the True Cost of Computers—Government Purchasers Buy ‘Greener’ Computers,” visit: www.govinfo.bz/4591-207.