With all the sky-is-falling news these days — global warming, crashing fisheries, mercury contamination even on mountaintops — you probably haven’t given a second thought to that laptop you just closed before you picked up this mag. Maybe it’s time you did.
By Heather Millar
Electronic products — or, more to the point, computers — harbor a grab bag of environmental bogeymen: They use enormous amounts of energy. Manufacturing them may squander resources, not to mention involve nasty chemicals. The internal components contain dangerous toxins like mercury, cadmium, and lead. And recycling complicated electronic devices can be so labor-intensive and polluting that the job often gets shifted offshore, creating all kinds of new contamination problems in places like India and China.
Before you slump in despair onto your tray table, though, know there’s hope: A coalition of electronics-industry representatives, academics, engineers, environmentalists, and recycling experts has devised a system for rating the environmental impact of these electronics. Electronic Produce Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) rates products on energy efficiency, packaging, toxics reduction, manufacturing efficiency, and end-of-life issues like recyclability and battery disposal.
“What matters is the types of materials and the energy efficiency. Could they make computers easier to pull apart and recycle?” explains professor Paul T. Anastas, director of
Manufacturers supply data to qualify their products for Bronze, Silver, or Gold EPEAT status based on a combination of mandatory and optional criteria. EPEAT then independently and randomly verifies these claims to ensure accuracy.
“By setting a high bar for environmental improvement and allowing manufacturers flexibility in meeting it, EPEAT is successfully motivating the environmental redesign of computer products,” said Jeff Omelchuck, executive director of the Green Electronics Council, the Portland, Oregon–based non-profit group that manages EPEAT.
To date, EPEAT has rated over 680 products by more than 20 manufacturers, and NASA and the EPA have applied the standard in their contracts, as have corporations like McKesson and Kaiser Permanente. EPEAT estimates that in its first six months, the greener practices have saved 13.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and 24.4 million tons of materials and have kept 56.5 million tons of air pollutants out of the atmosphere.
Reaching Gold Status
Visit www.epeat.net for an outline of standard criteria and a searchable database of rated products. Some of the cooler EPEAT Gold gadgets include:
1. Zonbu 1 A desktop with no moving parts, it uses a superfast Internet connection to access remote applications — even the operating system — which cuts down on materials.
2. One Laptop Per Child OLPC XO-1 Designed to be distributed in developing countries, it’s so energy efficient that it can be operated by a hand crank.
3. Lenovo Think Vision L193p It’s guaranteed that 25 percent of the plastic in this monitor comes from postconsumer recycling. It’s the first product in the EPEAT registry to make such a claim.