Technology that’s green from the roots up

FRAMINGHAM (08/04/2008) – HP saw potential in used water bottles. Hewlett-Packard Co. found a way to turn those old bottles, along with other types of recyclable consumer plastics, into ink-jet printer cartridges.
In fact, HP turned more than 5 million pounds of recycled plastic into ink-jet cartridges in 2007 and plans to use twice as much this year.

The project, part of HP’s Design for Environment program, is just one way for the company to meet its green objectives, says Pat Tiernan, vice president for social and environmental responsibility.

“More and more people are really thinking about the environment in ways they hadn’t before,” he says.

HP isn’t the only technology company gambling on green. Many manufacturers are now giving heightened consideration to how their products affect the environment. As a result, they’re building more products that require fewer resources to make and less power to run, contain less toxic material, and are a snap to refurbish or recycle.

“The vendors are paying a tremendous amount of attention to this,” says Christopher Mines, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “The industry has made great strides, and certainly there are companies that take design for the environment to heart.”

Tiernan points to the initiatives at HP to illustrate the point.

The company has a commitment to eliminating toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardant (BFR) from all of its products by the end of 2009. It has switched from solvent-based paints to more environmentally friendly water-based types for its workstations and TVs. And 20 months ago, it started to eliminate metals, many of which are neurotoxins, from its consumer desktops, removing enough so far to be able to construct the Eiffel Tower.

HP also incorporates power management technology into its printers, something it has done since the 1990s with its Instant-on Technology, which shortens the time a printer takes to wake up from sleep mode, using up to 50% less energy than traditional technologies. And this year, it released HP Web Jetadmin, which is designed to allow IT workers to remotely schedule sleep/wake-up cycles and automatically turn off devices at night and on weekends.

The impact of those types of innovations can be significant: Over the past decade or so, HP’s technologies have yielded energy savings that are about the same as the savings that would be generated by removing 1.1 million cars from the road for one year.

Tiernan acknowledges that some of HP’s greener products have premium prices, but apparently companies are willing to pay them. He says customers often include questions about HP’s environmental policies on their requests for proposals. In fact, the number of customers asking about green initiatives has grown by more than 150% in the past two years.

Report Cards
Customers aren’t the only ones taking notes. Greenpeace International has taken on this issue in its quarterly “Guide to Greener Electronics” report (download PDF) , which ranks consumer electronics companies based on their efforts to reduce toxins in their products, and on their programs for taking back and recycling products.

The June 2008 report for the first time considered the manufacturers’ efforts to increase their products’ energy efficiency. That report, issued June 25, lists Sony Ericsson and Sony Corp. as leaders among the 18 companies ranked. However, the report gave those two a score of just over 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. The majority of the ranked companies fell between 4 and 5.

Despite such mediocre marks, the industry has made strides to do better by the environment.

Casey Harrell, a toxics activist at Greenpeace, says many manufacturers have made their product lines more environmentally friendly in just the past few years.

“We have significantly greener mobile phones, laptops and PDAs than we had three or four years ago,” he says. He credits such successes to technology advances, the development of alternative materials, legislative requirements and customer demands.

“Almost all [the manufacturers] are doing design for the environment to some extent, but there are companies that are certainly more progressive than others,” says Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

Fujitsu Computer Systems Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif., is working on several fronts toward its goal of developing greener products.

One initiative is the four-year-old Super Green Products program, says Richard McCormack, the company’s senior vice president of marketing. Products earn the Super Green designation if they’re best in class in several areas: They must use less energy, avoid hazardous substances and incorporate the three R’s — reduce, reuse, recycle — in their design and technology.

McCormack cites Fujitsu’s Primergy TX120 server as an example. The server takes less space, consumes less energy, and produces less heat and noise than standard servers, yet it has the same memory and storage capacity as bigger models. It’s also designed for easy disassembly and separation of materials that can then be reused in other products, he says. (The trade-off is that it has fewer optional components and more fixed ones, notes McCormack.)

Fujitsu has also developed biodegradable plastics that have less of an environmental impact than traditional plastics, which are harder to reuse than other components of electronic goods, McCormack says. The company has used biodegradables in certain notebook PCs since 2002. And in 2006, it developed a flexible bio-plastic using castor oil; that material is now used in PCs and cell phones.

Toxic Out; Green In
Fujitsu’s push for products that are environmentally sound from inception through disposal exemplifies the growing design-for-environment trend.

Harrell says he sees manufacturers phasing out a number of toxic chemicals, including lead, mercury and cadmium. Some are working to replace other toxins, such as PVC and BFR, with materials that so far have proved to be less dangerous.

However, he and others still see room for improvement.

A February 2008 Greenpeace report (download PDF) says the fate of up to 80% of e-waste in the U.S. is unknown, because much of it is still sent to landfills and incinerators or illegally exported for dumping in Africa or rudimentary recycling in Asia.

Harrell says manufacturers need to do more, too. For instance, Nintendo of America Inc. in Redmond, Wash., ranked at the very bottom of Greenpeace’s electronics guide. Nintendo did not respond to requests for comment.

To be fair, Nintendo isn’t the only company Greenpeace cited in a May report called “Playing Dirty” (download PDF) , which examined the use of hazardous chemicals and materials in gaming console components. Greenpeace looked at Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox 360 Elite, the 40GB Sony PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii. It didn’t detect cadmium or mercury in any of those game systems’ components, but it found lead and chromium at relatively low concentrations in some samples and PVC in a number of flexible materials (wire and cable coatings) in all of the consoles.

Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony have committed to making greener products. According to the Greenpeace report, Microsoft said it would stop using PVC and BFR in its hardware by 2010, Nintendo said it would eliminate PVC in its products but has not committed to a date, and Sony said it would phase out PVC and certain uses of BFR in its mobile products by 2010.

Customers Are Watching
ChiYoung Oh, environmental products manager at Samsung Electronics Co. in Seoul, says that consumers expect top brands to have high environmental standards and that corporate customers want to know about green programs, even if contracts aren’t won or lost because of them.

Samsung has a number of initiatives it can show to customers, Oh said in an e-mailed statement. In 2004, the company introduced a formal eco-design process that incorporates attention to resource efficiency, environmental hazards and energy efficiency. The process is linked to the company’s quality certification process, which means environmental factors are considered part of product quality.

Samsung incorporates recycled materials in new products when possible and focuses on making products easier to recycle. It has simplified screws and fasteners to make products easier to break down into components, reduced the number of materials used in order to facilitate material separation, and ensured that plastics are marked in accordance with international standards to aid recycling.

Likewise, Sun Microsystems Inc. thinks about disassembly as it designs its products, making sure they come apart quickly and mostly without tools, according to Dermot Duggan, Sun’s director of eco-innovation solutions. The company even moved ID stickers from plastic parts to sheet metal, because clean plastic is more valuable for recycling.

Such efforts make a difference, says Jake Player, president of TechTurn Inc., an Austin-based company that recycles and refurbishes technology equipment.

“We’re seeing [manufacturers] work with us on how to make the computers easier to recycle,” Player says.

For example, hard drives now snap out, and chassis snap apart. There’s less use of metals and other components that can’t easily be separated, and there’s more compatibility of components across the manufacturers’ own product lines.

Player says his company can refurbish and resell 80% of the 1 million assets it handles annually. Those include data center equipment, scanners, fax machines, phones, docking stations and computer speakers. The remaining materials can be recycled.

Today, says Player, “manufacturers are designing these products with [recyclers] in mind, whereas five years ago they weren’t.”

Prattis a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her [email protected] .

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