Thursday, January 27, 2011

Green Computing

     Green Computing is the environmentally responsible use of computers and related resources. Such practices include the implementation of energy-efficient central processing units (CPUs), servers and peripherals as well as reduced resource consumption and proper disposal of electronic waste (e-waste).

One of the earliest initiatives toward green computing in the United States was the voluntary labeling program known as Energy Star. It was conceived by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992 to promote energy efficiency in hardware of all kinds. The Energy Star label became a common sight, especially in notebook computers and displays. Similar programs have been adopted in Europe and Asia.
     Government regulation, however well-intentioned, is only part of an overall green computing philosophy. The work habits of computer users and businesses can be modified to minimize adverse impact on the global environment.

 Here are some steps that can be taken:
  • Power-down the CPU and all peripherals during extended periods of inactivity.
  • Try to do computer-related tasks during contiguous, intensive blocks of time, leaving hardware off at other times.
  • Power-up and power-down energy-intensive peripherals such as laser printers according to need.
  • Use liquid-crystal-display (LCD) monitors rather than cathode-ray-tube (CRT) monitors.
  • Use notebook computers rather than desktop computers whenever possible.
  • Use the power-management features to turn off hard drives and displays after several minutes of inactivity.
  • Minimize the use of paper and properly recycle waste paper.
  • Dispose of e-waste according to federal, state and local regulations.
  • Employ alternative energy sources for computing workstations, servers, networks and data centers.

     It’s pretty easy to adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality about old electronics, especially because we live in an age preoccupied with constant updates and upgrades.  Sleeker, faster models of our favorite electronics emerge each month (an average of 16 new types of cell phones come on
the market each month) — and for many, it can be hard to be left in the 20th century dark ages with technological gadgets that don’t perform the newest and slickest tricks. But in a flurry to buy new electronic items, we often forget about what happens to the old ones.  We embrace these new gadgets, say out with the old and in with the new, but in the process we often fail to give proper attention to all the old items we leave behind.

     While it is exciting to develop and experience new technologies, we have an ethical responsibility to minimize hazardous waste production throughout the entire life cycle of an item, from its production to its disposal. Simply being aware of your consumption of electronic goods and taking your items to a proper recycler will help immensely against the illegal dumping of E-Waste to other countries that are forced to sacrifice their health and their environment to dispose of it.

     Saving up for that new iPad? Counting down the days to get a new laptop? Or maybe your cell phone took a voluntary swim in a puddle or toilet and you’re left with no choice but to purchase a new one. All these scenarios are understandable; however, what will you do with your old item? Unless you bring it to a proper recycling system, it could end up with all other E-waste.

     E-Waste is a broad umbrella category that covers the ever-growing universal amount of discarded electronic items such as computers, cell phones, printers, hair dryers, and basically anything that uses an electric cord or battery. These items differ from the ordinary landfill waste because of the amount of toxic metals they contain that produce even more environmental hazards than landfill waste. Some of these metals include arsenic, lead, and mercury, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Frequent exposure to these chemicals can cause severe health issues such as cancer, respiratory illness, and reproductive problems (Visit SVTC for more information). A Greenpeace study argued that E-waste is currently one of the ‘fastest growing types of hazardous waste’ on the planet. The amounts of E-waste are only expected to rise in the future, given the continual increase of new technologies and shorter product lifespans. As companies continue to race with each other to see how can develop the more advanced, ‘gotta have it’ product first, more and more electronics will become unnecessarily obsolete.

     The problem with electronic waste lies not only in the high level of toxicity of these products, but the way in which they are disposed. Greenpeace states that 20-50 million tonnes of E-Waste are generated each year. While this is a gigantic amount to consider, what is left uncounted is a ‘hidden flow’ of E-waste that is exported to developing nations such as China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Greenpeace suggests that in India, the hidden flows could potentially count for 99% of reported E-waste, or 143,000 tons. Due to companies mislabeling their exports as ‘donations’ or ‘scrap’, it is impossible to quantify just exactly how much waste is being illegally exported and dumped on these countries.

     When impoverished countries receive this waste, they are only equipped with rudimentary recycling technologies to either simply extract valuable raw material or reuse certain components. Those who work in the scrap yards breaking apart and retrieving these items aren’t adequately covered with protective clothing gear or face masks when the chemicals are smelted or released into the air, so their health is immediately at risk. In addition to posing severe health risks to those in the immediate vicinity, the chemicals also pervade the air, soil, and water in the surrounding areas, causing incredible environmental degradation in these communities.

     Considering the vast amount of human, air, water, soil, and biota pollution that this hazardous and toxic waste creates, an ethical issue is at hand. It is easy for us in developed countries like America and Europe to develop an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality when it comes to all types of our waste. But unless it is properly recycled, the waste never disappears; it just winds up in a landfill or on the other side of a planet that is still ours. It is important to keep in mind that environmental degradation that is unaccounted for will snowball into all sorts of problems once the ecosystems are destabilized; gradually contaminated health, food, and water supplies are just as harmful as sudden natural disasters or disease epidemics that we would otherwise feel a moral jolt to assist.

     Furthermore, in such a highly globalized society that we live in today, it is extremely important to understand the interconnectedness of activities that take place on this earth. For instance, when E-waste chemicals infiltrate every ecological component of regions in China, they will eventually make their way into whatever we import back from them, be it food or manufactured items. When our air, food, water supply, and other necessities for life come directly from our environment, it is all of our responsibilities to think critically about the impacts we are making on the environment each time we toss away an item that could otherwise be reused or recycled.

     Finally, human interests aside, the pollution that E-waste causes affects not only humans but also all other organisms in those areas. If we feel that we have a moral and ethic responsibility to engage in life sustaining activities for every living thing on this earth, then E-waste pollution and other environmental issues should force us to reflect upon the ways in which we impact our global community.