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This is the first in a series of articles about sustainability practices in the computing industry. The rest of the series will focus on specific companies and their sustainable electronics practices. I hope these are useful in making sustainable shopping decisions.
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In some ways, the carbon footprints of computers may seem to be negated by the energy-saving impacts of all our computer usage. Every email saves the paper and energy costs of mailing a letter across town or the world.
However, it takes plenty of energy to run all our computers, many of which are running 24 hours per day. Servers in particular can be significant energy hogs, and they are likely to never be switched off.
A recent study also shows that computer spam is also energy-intensive. Many of us get less junk snail mail with the advent of spam, but the volume of spam messages far outweighs the former volume of junk mail in most households.
A recent McAfee analysis estimates the annual energy used to transmit, process and filter spam totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours, equal to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes.
Unfortunately, your PC can do little to fight the crushing volume of spam, but it can be designed to use less energy during regular operation and in standby modes.
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Sustainable computer production
The other major issue regarding computer sustainability is the life cycle of the machines. It's important to know what materials go into the computers, as well as where and how materials sourced for the computer. Some computer companies are working to minimize the hazardous chemicals and other toxic, non-recyclable components.
They should also be working to minimize the overall weight and volume of components to minimize input costs for materials. Furthermore, production facilities should be optimized to use renewable energy and maximize efficiencies to reduce energy and water usage.
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Where to find information
An electronics store clerk typically doesn't know much about the sustainability ratings of various brands sold in the store.
The best place to start with computer sustainability research is on each company's own Web site. However, there is plenty of green-washing in every industry, including computing. Most companies try to brand themselves as green even if they have made no effort to improve their sustainable practices.
Like a good reporter, it is important to find a second source. One reliable source of sustainable electronics information is the Corporate Social Responsibility Wire. The site is dedicated to reviews and analysis of CSR reports. The company-generated reports typically include sustainability issues and other social responsibility factors such as workers' rights and protections. The buzzword in CSR is the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.
Computer Sustainability Considerations
Here are the items you should consider when looking for a sustainable computer company. Three of the biggest computer companies — Apple, Dell and HP — are reviewed.