Friend or Foe?

Rob Coppinger makes the case for recycling PCs and gives tips on energy saving

Rob Coppinger makes the case for recycling PCs and gives tips on energy saving

It's easy to get all gooey over the PC on your desk. It seems such an innocuous presence, adorned with Post-it notes and silently guiding you through the day's work. In truth, PCs can be nasty little critters. Given half a chance, they'll foul up your environment and chew a hole through your corporate chequebook.

A recent study by Texas Instruments found that to manufacture one silicon wafer - enough to produce 250 microprocessors - requires 4,267cu ft of bulk gases, 27lbs of chemicals, 29cu ft of hazardous gases, and 3,023 gallons of de-ionised water. The process generates 9lbs of hazardous waste and 3,787 gallons of wastewater.

Pollutants do not end with the microchip. The circuit boards and casings are all made of plastics that may or may not be biodegradable and may or may not be recyclable. Computers contain harmful substances such as lead, mercury (for which there is no known safe level, according to the World Health Organisation), cadmium, hexavalent chromium and the brominated flame retardents PBB and PBDE.

The brominated flame retardents are already on a list of toxins to be phased out, produced by the Ospar Commission. This organisation is funded by European governments, and includes in its members a number of European Union member states and the European Commission. The list of chemicals consists of those known to be persistent in the environment after disposal. PBB and PBDE are not just pollutants after a computer's useful life. Circuit boards in use heat up and release their brominated flame retardents as gases. These gases can accumulate in the fatty tissues of the human body.

Office computers generate mountains of wastepaper. According to the US government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper currently makes up at least a third of US landfill content. Computers haven't helped. In fact, many argue they have increased paper use. Paper waste in UK offices currently stands at 300,000 tonnes per year. And then there's the cardboard and styrofoam used in packaging.

The electricity your computer runs on is also increasing pollution back at the power station.

But what office does not have a computer network these days? A network that did not exist 20 years ago, and did not draw power 20 years ago. The UK government's Energy Technology Support Unit has some sobering information on power consumption on its Web site.

Your average PC will use 125 watts per hour and will sit idle every day for six out of the 10 hours a PC is, on average, switched on. That's 305 kilowatt hours of use in an average working year. It is using the equivalent of just over 10 litres of fuel oil to generate this expected annual kilowatt hour usage and will put 325lbs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to the EPA, that's enough to keep one household running for more than 10 days. Multiply that by the millions of PCs in use in the UK and that is a lot of coal and gas consumption. And then there's the energy required to cool offices warmed by the heat generated by operating computers.

The problem does not stop with PC manufacture and use. Millions of redundant computers and their toxic components such as lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium - all of which are carcinogenic - represent a huge hidden environmental problem. Estimates suggest that more than 130,000 tonnes of computer-related waste is thrown out each year, with only a small percentage recycled. Most ends up in landfill sites, with the ensuing danger that the heavy metals will leach into underground water.

Minimise impact

So what can you do to minimise the environmental impact of your IT systems - and save money at the same time?

Energy consumption is one small step that can generate good short-term savings and help the environment. Power management has become standard on PCs since the Energy Star programme, but many are still left on overnight or while idle. Worse still, because power management affects machine performance some systems managers disable the energy management functions.

According to the American Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Energy Analysis Programme, studies show only 10% to 20% of PCs in use are properly enabled for power savings. And then there's waste paper, 60% of which is not recycled, due to the economics of paper collection. "Collection of waste paper for companies with only 50 staff is just not economic for the UK," says David Symmers, of the UK's Independent Waste Paper Processors Association, "because there is no paper making industry here, unlike other countries. With countries like Germany and Holland enforcing 100% recycling legislatively, the economics are totally different".

If recyclers won't include you in their rounds, you'll need to grasp the nettle and take your paper to recycling sites yourself. Fortunately, obsolete IT hardware does not present a similar challenge. An online resource listing companies who will dispose of your PC can be found on the Wastebook Web site. A joint project commissioned by the Thames Region of the Environment Agency and written and co-sponsored by Friends of the Earth, it carries the details of 50-odd companies and charities that will recycle corporate and personal PCs.

Top 10 tips to save energy - and cash

Power management

  • Turn off PCs when they are not being used for an hour or more

  • Turn off peripherals when not in use - better still, only turn them on when you need them

  • Switch off your monitor if not your PC

  • Invest in flat-screen technology, which reduces your PC energy usage to that of a laptop

  • Share peripherals as widely as possible

    Paper management

  • Check through work on screen to avoid multiple prints

  • Disable the feature that prints a cover sheet for every print job

  • Publish documents - particularly frequently updated ones like phone directories - on the company intranet

  • Print on both sides of a page

  • Buy recycled/recyclable paper

  • Read more on PC hardware