New developments in the design and manufacturing of computers, printers, and other electronic devices are reducing the use of materials that are harmful to the environment and also saving on energy consumption. These efforts can have a significant impact on the lifecycle costs of the equipment for schools and other consumers.

To see just how much these efforts can save schools money, check out the series of energy calculators on Dell Inc.’s web site. Using these calculators, you can input several variables relating to your environment and figure out how much you’d save in both carbon emissions and dollars, depending on what products you buy.

According to Dell, a classroom with 30 Optiplex 745 computers with Pentium D processors, Energy Smart power management, and 17-inch flat-panel monitors would save about $1,896 a year in energy costs. By replacing the Pentium D with a Core 2 Duo processor, which uses even less energy, this same classroom reportedly would save about $2,082 a year in energy costs.

Dell is in the vanguard on environmentally friendly, or “green,” computing. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Dell Chairman Michael Dell announced a new “Plant a Tree for Me” program, in which the company offered to plant a tree for every PC sold. Customers can opt to have $2 of each laptop purchase, or $6 of each desktop purchase, go toward a fund to plant trees around the world.

“We’re the first global technology company to offer customers the opportunity to offset the emissions associated with the electricity used to power their computers,” said Dell, who also announced that his company would be the first to recycle used computers at no cost to consumers (see side story).

But Dell is by no means alone in the green computing movement. Apple Inc. has completely eliminated cathode-ray tube (CRT) displays from its inventory. Hewlett-Packard Co. says it’s the first Tier 1 computer maker to meet the new “80 Plus” performance specification for energy-efficient power supplies. And IBM has unveiled a new program, called Big Green Innovations, intended to help customers look at ways to reduce energy and waste. The program will offer consulting services to help school systems, corporations, and other enterprises design more energy-efficient data centers and otherwise reduce energy consumption, according to the online news source CNET. The federal government has gotten into the act, too. The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, is a web site run by the Environmental Protection Agency that aims to help consumers, businesses, organizations, and schools evaluate, compare, and select desktops, notebooks, and monitors based on their environmental attributes.

The tool evaluates products according to three tiers of environmental performance: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. Its complete set of performance criteria includes 23 required criteria and 28 optional criteria in eight categories, such as reduction or elimination of environmentally sensitive materials, product longevity or lifecycle extension, and energy conservation. To qualify for acceptance as an EPEAT-certified product, the equipment must conform to all required criteria; conforming to some of the optional criteria can boost a product’s score.

In January, President Bush signed an executive order mandating that all federal agencies must buy EPEAT-certified products, a sign the federal government is fully embracing this emerging trend.

‘Greener’ components

Computer manufacturers have begun replacing parts once thought necessary to the design of their machines with more environmentally friendly components.

One of the major trends that has emerged in recent years is the replacement of CRT monitors with flat-panel digital displays. As these products have become cheaper to make, they’ve progressed from being niche products to the primary way we view TV and our computer screens.

Flat-panel liquid crystal display (LCD) and plasma screens are much more environmentally friendly than CRT monitors, which had been the standard for display technology since TV was introduced in the 1920s. They also consume a lot less power. According to monitor manufacturer ViewSonic Corp., an LCD display uses about a third of the power required for a CRT monitor with the same screen area. In addition, the amount of heat generated by an LCD display is considerably less than that of a CRT monitor, reducing the need for air conditioning. LCD displays can trim building cooling needs by up to 20 percent, ViewSonic says.

Companies such as Apple have completely eliminated CRT monitors from their inventory. Apple says its move to providing only flat-panel displays has eliminated more than two pounds of lead from its monitors–and the flat-panel displays also reportedly consume 80 percent less power in sleep mode and weigh half as much as the older versions.

For its part, Dell has pledged to eliminate all polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) from products introduced after 2009, indicating its commitment to environmental responsibility.

Reduced energy consumption

With rising oil, gas, and electricity costs, energy consumption has become a major concern for school and government officials. In response, computer manufacturers have taken steps to make energy efficiency a key part of their design goals.

“Customers today are recognizing the total cost of ownership associated with the energy costs of powering [and] cooling their equipment,” explained Tod Arbogast, director of sustainable business for Dell.

With the recently released Intel Core 2 Duo processors, desktop and notebook computers are able to run more coolly and quietly, owing to enhanced voltage efficiency: The processors are able to transfer power only to those areas of the chip that need it.

“They are actually designed to use less energy in the core itself,” says Vic Berger, a technologist with computer reseller CDW-G. “A lot of that is for heat purposes. The more energy I use, the more heat I produce. So as I’m condensing cores in tighter and putting in two … or four cores, I’m running the CPU [central processing unit] hotter and hotter. If I can reduce the energy required at input by reducing heat, that will also produce a much greener machine.”

Companies such as Dell, Apple, HP, and Gateway Inc. are incorporating not only the heat-reducing Intel Core 2 Duo chips, but also their own energy-efficient methods of CPU management, power input, and more.

HP says it has become the first Tier 1 computer maker to meet the “80 Plus” standard for power supply. In the past, power supplies would only convert 60 to 70 percent of the electricity coming from the wall into energy. The remaining 30 to 40 percent would be expelled as heat. With 80 Plus, power supplies are required to convert at least 80 percent of the electricity into usable energy.

The 80 Plus standard is an element of the federal government’s new Energy Star 4.0 regulations, which go into effect July 20. The new regulations will require a PC’s power supply to convert 80 percent of its incoming electricity into usable computing power for it to be considered an energy-efficient product.

Another company, NComputing Co., says it offers a model for school computing that is even more energy-efficient.

NComputing aims to deliver high-end computing to a greater number of users at a fraction of the cost of buying traditional PCs, by turning a single computer into a shared network of several machines. Each additional user shares the CPU and memory of the host computer. Depending on the configuration they choose, schools can support up to 30 students on a single host computer, the company says.

“The fact is that today’s PC is essentially a mainframe,” says Stephen Dukker, chief executive officer of NComputing. “Our mission is to take these powerful machines and share them. Why does everyone need a 200-watt PC on their desk, when our devices [consume] five watts per user? We’re replacing searchlights with flashlights.”

Printers and toners

While much of the focus centers on computers, printers and toner cartridges also are becoming more environmentally friendly in both packaging and design.

HP recently introduced new packaging for the ink and toner sets for its printers. While this might not seem like a significant environmental achievement, HP estimates it will save 32 million pounds of carbon emissions in 2007 alone just from this redesign.

“We’ve redesigned our packaging to be more compact and to use more environmentally compatible materials, shifting from what we might call a ‘virgin’ plastic to a recycled content plastic or a recycled content paper board,” says Scott Canonico, HP’s manager of environmental policy and strategy. “We’ve improved materials and made them more recyclable … and it all results in a greater net benefit for the environment, while also benefiting HP, our partners, and our customers.”

Among the improvements is a new method of cushioning that replaces molded end caps on previous boxes and also reduces the number of packaging contents in the box. The air cushioning is not only meant to protect the new toner cartridge, but also can be reused when sending a used cartridge back to HP for recycling, something the company supports wholeheartedly.

Lexmark Inc. has stepped forward with an entire line of monochrome printers that the company advertises as the most energy-efficient laser printers available. Lexmark’s E Series of printers contains such technology as an instant warm-up fuser, which reportedly uses 40 percent less energy than other traditional fusers. This allows for faster printing time and also quicker cool-down periods, Lexmark says.

In addition, Lexmark has added a new smaller and quicker print head to its printer line, which reportedly uses one-tenth of the power that large printing heads commonly use, as well as an eco-mode that lets users optimize the printer’s settings for environmental use. For example, users can designate double-sided printing as the default, or turn off the interface LED and backlighting.

“We’re … using our technology to drive performance and reliability in an environmentally friendly way,” says Bill Eckdahl, product manager for low-end monochrome printers at Lexmark.

The use of environmentally friendly printing techniques is not limited to Lexmark. Xerox Corp. says its use of “solid ink” has led to 90 percent less waste than with traditional laser printers.

Xerox reportedly uses a polymer-based ink instead of a powdered toner. This technique creates images by heating ink sticks and applying the colors to a drum inside the printer, which then transfers the image onto a page, Xerox says.

Tech firms aim to address ‘eWaste’

From eSchool News staff and wire service reports Inside Hewlett-Packard Co.’s cavernous recycling plant in the Sacramento suburbs, truckloads of obsolete PCs, servers, and printers collected from consumers and businesses nationwide are cracked open by goggled workers who pull out batteries, circuit boards, and other potentially hazardous components.

The electronic carcasses are fed into a massive machine that noisily shreds them into tiny pieces and mechanically sorts the fragments into piles of steel, aluminum, plastic, and precious metals. Those scraps are sent to smelting plants, where they are melted down for reuse.

The computer industry is ramping up its campaign against electronic waste, a dangerous byproduct of technology’s relentless expansion.

HP and Dell Inc., which together sell more than half the country’s PCs, are earning praise from environmentalists for using more eco-friendly components and recycling their products when consumers discard them. But every major computer maker now has some kind of computer recycling program available for its customers.

“The computer companies are definitely embracing the idea that they need to deal with their products at the end of their useful life,” said Barbara Kyle, who coordinates the San Francisco-based nonprofit Computer TakeBack Campaign. “There’s been a complete turnaround.”

Still, activists say too much of the nation’s electronic waste–not only PCs but also TVs, radios, batteries, and other materials–ends up in landfills or gets shipped overseas to poor countries, where it pollutes the environment and exposes workers to dangerous chemicals.

eWaste is a growing environmental and public health concern as the world becomes more wired and companies introduce new products at a faster pace. Discarded computers, televisions, radios, batteries, cell phones, cameras, and other gadgets contain a stew of toxic metals and chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says American consumers generated nearly 2 million tons of electronic waste in 2005. Gartner estimates that 133,000 PCs are discarded by U.S. homes, schools, and businesses each day. Yet only 10 to 15 percent of electronics are currently recycled, industry analysts say. The rest collects dust in people’s homes or gets dumped into municipal landfills, where environmentalists worry toxic chemicals can leak out.

Among the eWaste that is recycled, activists say, up to 80 percent is exported overseas to dismantling shops where poor workers are exposed to hazardous fumes and chemicals while trying to extract valuable metals and components.

A growing number of countries and states are requiring electronics companies to take responsibility for recycling their products. Japan, South Korea, and most European countries now require electronics manufacturers to pay for and manage recycling programs for their products.

There is no such federal law in the United States, but Washington, Maine, and Maryland recently passed “take-back” laws and about a dozen other states are considering such legislation.

California made it illegal to throw away nearly all electronic products last year, but the state doesn’t require manufacturers to take back their products. Instead, when consumers buy electronics, they pay fees to cover the cost of recycling those products later.

eWaste advocates are pushing the idea of “producer responsibility,” because it gives companies an incentive to make their devices more eco-friendly.

Among computer manufacturers, Dell–the No. 2 PC maker behind HP–has emerged as a leader in recycling. The company has pledged to phase out certain toxic chemicals and began offering free recycling for all its products in December.

Chairman and CEO Michael Dell challenged the industry to follow his company’s lead in his keynote address at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, saying, “It’s the right thing to do for our customers. It’s the right thing to do for our earth.”

The company reportedly recovered 80 million pounds of equipment in 2005. Some computers are refurbished and resold–possibly overseas–while parts or materials are recycled within the U.S. if equipment can’t be fixed, said Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton. “Our goal is to make it as easy to recycle a computer as it is to buy one,” said Hilton, adding that the company’s electronic waste isn’t shipped overseas.

Dell’s recycling service, in which the company will collect used machines directly from a school site at no charge, offers educators a huge convenience.

“Educational institutions traditionally don’t have robust logistics capabilities within their communities and need the service of actually coming on site, collecting the equipment, consolidating the equipment, and transporting the equipment,” says Tod Arbogast, director of sustainable business for Dell.

HP reportedly recycled 164 million pounds of hardware and print cartridges globally last year, 16 percent more than the previous year. In the U.S., the company recycles about 50 million pounds at its plants in Roseville, Calif., and Nashville, Tenn., and doesn’t send any of that waste stream to landfills or overseas.

Since it began recycling 20 years ago, HP has set out to design products that last longer and are easy to recycle, said John Frey, who manages the company’s environmental strategies.

HP still charges for recycling, but consumers get a coupon that goes toward the purchase of new products. The company also organizes collection drives at retail stores where consumers can drop off old gear for free.

“Being environmentally responsible makes sense for our business–it affects brand loyalty and how customers view us,” Frey said.

HP’s recycling service ranges from $13 to $34 per item, depending on the type and quantity of the devices in question. Schools and other customers can get a free quote from HP’s web site.

CDW-G offers a similar fee-based service, in which the company takes away the old hardware, installs the new hardware, and makes sure the old equipment is disposed of properly. A certificate of environmental compliance is given to schools after the recycling has taken place, says Vic Berger, a technologist with CDW-G. A growing number of states now require institutions to have disposal plans in place before replacing old technology, Berger explained.

But the problem is far wider than just computers. Activists are focusing more attention on televisions, which make up an increasingly large share of the world’s electronic waste. As more Americans switch to flat-panel TVs, they are throwing out clunky cathode-ray tube sets that contain large amounts of lead.

“The TV industry needs to step up and create some takeback programs,” Kyle said. “Ultimately, they must design their stuff in a way that makes them easier to recycle.”