The green computing movement

Green computing

Green computing may seem like something only hippies would dream of becoming involved with. But it is something that everyone should and can implement today since all of us are making use of technology on a daily basis in both our personal and work lives. It is making our lives much easier so why not make it beneficial for the planet as well?

Green computing, or green technology as some call it, is the environmentally responsible use of technology and all it encompasses. This involves the use of energy-efficient technology (like CPUs, servers and peripherals), the reduced consumption of resources and the appropriate disposal of electronic waste (otherwise known as e-waste).

Now, one could easily be thinking what harm does technology really cause the environment? It does, after all, simplify our lives significantly, provide us access to large amounts of information and resources, and connects the world in ways that were unknown before. All of these things are great but manufacturing the technology that provides these benefits and then disposing of these when they are past their expiry date, is where the big problems come into play.

While there are many things that could qualify as technology, we are focusing on mainly computers and related electronic devices, excluding cars, electricity, home appliances and so forth. It is not technology per se that has a bad effect on green living but the materials that are used in the manufacturing of computers, smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices.

Basically, many of the materials that are used in the manufacturing process and all of the additional components that accompany technology are not biodegradable. This means the materials are not able to be dissolved by bacteria or other biological means. Materials can then not be disposed of naturally but rather builds up in landfills, creating dangerous waste.

Some of the harmful ingredients that are found in technological components are lead (especially prominent in computer monitors), cadmium, mercury, chromium VI (or hexavalent chromium) and brominated flame retardants, among others. These elements are found in printed circuit boards (relays and switches), batteries, plastic coverings, cables, chip resistors, infrared detectors and so forth. These harmful materials often seep into waterways which then accumulate in organisms that eventually make it into the food chain, which is bad news for humans. Also, when these materials are burnt, they cause ash to fly up into the atmosphere and in turn affect our airways.

So, even if you are one of the people that are not too concerned about tree-hugging, greenhouse gasses and the ozone layer, the materials that are found in our technology can affect our health. Most of the materials are known to be bioaccumulating. This means that the substances accumulate or become more over time within a biological organism. And we are one of those biological organisms. People can often suffer from, for example, mercury poisoning through long-term exposure to the element through working with it every day. Even though it accumulates very slowly, the effects are still very real and dangerous.

Another thing to think about when it comes to implementing green computing is the way in which we dispose of technology. Taking into consideration the above fact that certain materials can seep into the ground or become dangerous when incinerated, there is no easy to get rid of e-waste (the term used to describe discarded electrical or electronic devices).

New versions of technology come out regularly. This means that many of the things we use today are quickly obsolete by the next year and then need to be thrown away. Technology is also becoming cheaper to acquire so there is not much hesitancy in getting rid of a device. All of this means e-waste is becoming a big problem around the world and clogging up landfills at a rapid rate.

How do companies get rid of e-waste in a safe way? There are very few companies that currently get rid of e-waste mainly because of the large costs involved in managing such an operation. Also, often people do not know of places to get rid of e-waste and just throw it away in the same way they do anything else, for convenience. But the process for this type of waste disposal is different than for other things and technology needs to be kept separate in order to reduce the risk of element contamination.

E-waste often cannot be gotten rid of completely because of the materials they are made of. Circuit boards and some hard drives can be resold as spare parts and then reused. Those circuit boards that cannot be resold are separated into precious metals, fibreglass and metals, chopped into a powder and then disposed of using a method called fire assay. Small metal components such as screws and clips are separated magnetically and then sold as scrap metal.

Any plastic housing or plastic components are kept entirely separate from the other parts of the devices. Plastic is particularly difficult to get rid of because they may contain flame retardants. Also, because it is unknown if a plastic has mixed or unmarked resins, it complicates the recycling process. These components also cannot be resold because they will most likely not fit on newer equipment. Sometimes plastics are used as roadbed fill but efforts are being made to incorporate these in flooring and housing.

When it comes to monitors, the CRT tube used in some monitors is removed and then crushed. The crushed result is then separated into leaded glass and metals. It is then inspected for contaminants. Much of it can be sold for reuse in new CRT glass. The leftover metal is then sold for scrap.

A few ways in which to make your technology-use green:

  • Preferably use LED or LCD monitors instead of CRT monitors as CRT is more difficult to recycle. Still, be aware that LED and LCD monitors can also contain traces of lead and other harmful elements but simply less so than CRT monitors. CRT monitors also chow lots of power, so you’ll have a cost saving by using LED or LCD instead.
  • If you are using a CRT monitor, choose dark backgrounds for your screen display since bright-colored backgrounds consume more power. If you are using an LCD or LED monitor, the opposite is true.
  • If you live in South Africa make use of this site to see where and how you can dispose of your e-waste. Seeing as e-waste does not occur every day for most people, it shouldn’t be a big inconvenience to do this. Except in the case of batteries but most Pick ‘n Pays (amongst other big-brand stores) have bins where you can drop your batteries off for recycling at no cost or effort to you.
  • Buy energy efficient electronics. If a computer has the “Energy Star” label on it, you know it is an energy-saving product. Check out the Energy Star site for products that are endorsed by them (http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm)
  • Try to return equipment back to the original supplier. Most would gladly take back an old cellphone handset or similar products.
  • Save energy (and money) by switching off devices when you know you are not going to be using them for a long period of time. It is tempting to leave it on for convenience but do so when you know you are going to return to it frequently.
  • If possible, try to unplug devices when they are switched off and not being used because they expend energy even when only plugged in but not turned on.
  • Use your laptop or other mobile devices more than your desktop PC because desktop PCs are required to be plugged in all of the time while mobile devices are unplugged except when being charged.
  • Monitor your power consumption and then take measures to reduce it. Also, make use of power management features, something that is available on most operating systems.
  • Remember when you are going to recycle your technology, get rid of any personal data on hard drives and such to protect yourself.
  • You can even donate old electronics that you find to be outdated to charities because the technology can still be useful to someone else even if it is not the latest model.
  • Instead of buying new ink cartridges every time, rather have them refilled. This eliminates all the waste produced by throwing away cartridges every time.