Government Purchasers Drive Green Computer Market
As computer purchasers recognize the significant environmental impacts of their purchases, many are seeking ways to buy affordable, high performance, and more environmentally preferable computers. A new tool developed with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes it easier for organizations to reduce the environmental costs associated with purchases of desktop computers, laptops, and monitors. The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) is already referenced in government contracting documents worth $32 billion.
EPEAT consists of a set of voluntary environmental criteria and a system for identifying and verifying products meeting the criteria. Well known, mainstream computer and component manufacturers such as Dell and Hewlett Packard have registered products meeting the criteria. The rapidly growing list of more than 60 products meeting the criteria is provided in an online searchable database at www.epeat.net.
EPEAT is an “umbrella” environmental standard and rating system that makes it easier for computer buyers to buy high performance computers, laptops, and monitors that meet stringent environmental criteria. The EPA-funded tool was developed over a three-year period. The very structured, public standard-development process involved more than 100 stakeholders from throughout the computer world, including IT purchasers, federal, state, and local governments, environmental activists, computer recyclers, and computer and component manufacturers.
The stakeholders coordinated EPEAT criteria with existing international electronic standards such as the most recent U.S. Energy Star energy efficiency requirements, EPA’s Plug-In Guidelines for Materials Management, Rechargeable Battery Recycling Coalition recommendations, Coalition of North Eastern Governors Model Toxics in Packaging Legislation, European Union (EU) restriction on hazardous substances (RoHS), EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment requirements (WEEE), EU battery directives, and various global environmental labeling standards. The stakeholders then created new standards as needed.
The resulting three-tiered EPEAT standard was adopted as Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Standard 1680. It includes 23 required criteria and 28 optional performance criteria in the following eight categories:
- Reduction/Elimination of Environmentally Sensitive Materials
- Materials Selection
- Design for End of Life
- Life Cycle Extension
- Energy Conservation
- End of Life Management
- Corporate Performance
Products meeting all 23 of the required criteria will be identified as EPEAT Bronze products. Products meeting the 23 required criteria and at least 50 percent of the optional criteria will be listed as EPEAT Silver products. Those meeting the 23 required criteria and at least 75 percent of the optional criteria will be designated EPEAT Gold products.
Compared to traditional computer equipment, all EPEAT-registered computers have reduced levels of cadmium, lead, and mercury to better protect human health. They are more energy efficient, which reduces emissions of climate changing greenhouse gases. They are also easier to upgrade and recycle. In fact, manufacturers must offer safe recycling options for the products when they are no longer useable.
Reducing Environmental Risks
Many computers contain high levels of substances known to cause human health or other related environmental hazards. The EPEAT standard is designed to reduce these risks by establishing required or optional thresholds for a variety of hazardous substances. The EPEAT standard, for example, addresses the following materials:
- 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 pounds 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 pounds of plastic present in the average computer. PVC is not only difficult to recycle, but 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 biphenyls (PBBs) and polybrominated diphenylethers (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 pounds of hexavalent chromium.
Additional Environmental Benefits
In addition to reducing hazardous substances, the EPEAT standard also includes a variety of additional environmental benefits. Manufacturers are required, for example, to meet the latest Energy Star energy-efficiency requirements. Manufacturers must also offer large volume purchasers an opportunity to properly recycle the equipment when it is no longer useful.
To facilitate computer recycling, EPEAT registered computers must be easy to disassemble. All materials must be clearly identified and paints and coatings incompatible with recycling systems are prohibited. Manufacturers must also report the percentage of recycled-content and bio-based (plant-based) content in their computers, which allows purchasers to use the information when making purchasing decisions.
To encourage the development of more durable computers, EPEAT registered products must be easy to upgrade and come with a three-year warrantee.
For a detailed explanation of EPEAT requirements and optional criteria, visit www.govinfo.bz/5966-300.
Recommended EPEAT Contract Language
EPEAT is already being referenced in purchasing documents totaling $32 billion worth, including purchases by many federal agencies such as the White House Executive Office of the President, NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. State and local governments are also referencing EPEAT with recent contracts by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State of Minnesota, and the City of San Jose, CA.
The Green Electronics Council, which is managing the EPEAT program under an initial grant from the EPA, recommends that all non-federal purchasers are encouraged to use the following contract language to ensure the products they buy meet the EPEAT standard:
“All desktops, laptops, and computer monitors provided under this contract are required to have achieved Bronze registration or higher under the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). EPEAT is a procurement tool designed to help large volume purchasers evaluate, compare, and select desktop computers, laptops, and monitors based upon their environmental attributes as specified in the consensus-based IEEE Standard for the Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer Products (1680).
Additional consideration will be provided for products that have achieved EPEAT Silver or EPEAT Gold registration. The registration criteria and a list of all registered equipment are provided at www.epeat.net.”
In addition to requiring EPEAT registration, purchasers are also encouraged to track their EPEAT purchases. The information requested in the following contract language can then be used to calculate the environmental benefits of an organization’s EPEAT purchases using a calculator being developed under an EPA grant.
“Suppliers are required to provide quarterly reports quantifying the number of EPEAT registered products purchased under this contract. The information must be reported in a matrix providing the following data for the current quarter, the fiscal year, and the duration of the contract.”
Recognizing that responsible sourcing examines issues beyond environmental concerns, the Center for a New American Dream is encouraging purchasers to consider additional social justice considerations when developing computer specifications. The center has developed recommended contract language to supplement the EPEAT standard. Suggested language addresses the export of hazardous waste, worker health and safety, and worker rights.
All of the issues addressed by the New American Dream language were discussed during the EPEAT development process and, for a variety of reasons, were not included in the initial EPEAT standard. The recommendation to prohibit prison labor, for example, was not included in the EPEAT standard because the Federal Prison Industries (FPI) was created by Congress as a program to rehabilitate prisoners. The Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), which control federal agency purchasing practices, states that “Agencies are encouraged to purchase FPI supplies and services to the maximum extent practicable.” Prohibiting prison labor as part of the EPEAT requirements would have prevented federal purchasers from using the standard.
Similarly, the EPEAT development team did not prohibit all export of electronic waste because it determined exporting was an essential part of the electronics industry’s global supply chain. It would be difficult, for example, to recycle components if export was prohibited. Verifying that all exporters meet the standards established by the Basel Convention for electronic waste also proved too challenging to include in the EPEAT standard at this time. The EPEAT development team did, however, require manufacturers to meet the end-of-life management parameters established in the EPA Plug-In to eCycling Guidelines for Materials Management. To view a pdf version of the guidelines, visit www.govinfo.bz/5966-302.
Because EPEAT was developed as an IEEE standard, it will be reviewed periodically for possible revision. The revision process will create opportunities to reconsider all aspects of the standard. Until then, purchasers interested in incorporating additional social justice considerations on top of the current EPEAT standard can review the New American Dream recommendations at www.govinfo.bz/5966-303.
Purchasers Making a Sustainable Difference
Large volume purchasers have made a difference in many different industries over the years. Air bags first appeared in automobiles because large fleet managers requested them. Recycled content paper first became available because large government purchasers asked for it. Most computers now meet Energy Star standards because of purchasers’ requests. Large volume purchasers are now asking for high-performance “green” computers meeting the EPEAT standard as a way of reducing the human health and environmental impacts associated with computer purchases.
About the Author
Scot Case is the founder of Responsible Sourcing Solutions, a consulting firm that helps organizations create value by integrating human health, environ-mental, and social considerations into strategic planning, purchasing, and other critical business decisions.
He also assists the Green Electronics Council in promoting EPEAT, the new green computer standard. For an archive of Scot’s “Green Purchaser” articles, visit www.govpro.com and click on the Earth-Friendly Zone. Contact Scot via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EPEAT Designation Categories
The EPEAT green computer standard includes 23 required criteria and 28 optional criteria. Products meeting all of the required criteria can be designated in one of the following categories:
- Meets the 23 required criteria
- Meets the 23 required criteria and at least 50 percent of the optional criteria
- Meets the 23 required criteria and at least 75 percent of the optional criteria
High performance products from most of the major computer manufacturers are currently being registered. A complete listing of all registered products is available at www.govinfo.bz/5966-300.
EPEAT’s Estimated Environmental Benefits
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), using very conservative assumptions, estimates that over the next five years, purchases of EPEAT registered computers will result in reductions of:
- More than 13 million pounds of hazardous waste
- More than 3 million pounds of non-hazardous Waste
- More than 600,000 MWh of energy—enough to power 6 million homes
EPA will be issuing a calculator permitting purchasers to quantify the environmental benefits of their EPEAT purchases within the next six months.
Attention Federal Government Purchasers
The Federal Electronics Challenge (FEC) has prepared a number of resources for federal purchasers, including recommended contract language and an EPEAT fact sheet explaining how EPEAT can help federal agencies meet their FEC obligations.
The FEC is a voluntary partnership program that encourages federal facilities and agencies to:
- Purchase greener electronic products.
- Reduce impacts of electronic products during use.
- Manage obsolete electronics in an environmentally safe way.
Federal purchasers are encouraged to visit the FEC website at www.govinfo.bz/5966-301.