More and more lately, IT vendors trumpet their electronic-waste recycling and "takeback" programs, where manufacturers accept responsibility for the full lifecycle of goods they produce. Better yet, we're told, is the rapid trend toward "green computing," with electronics being produced using fewer toxic substances and materials that cannot be recycled.
Environmental watchdog groups and academics pour out reports at an equally fierce clip regarding the global "e-waste crisis," some with horrifying accounts, complete with photos, of how electronics of all sorts from the U.S. are dumped in China, India and Africa for "recycling." Some Chinese villages have become e-waste dumping centers, where workers use hammers to beat mounds of discarded monitors and PCs into chunks that spew toxins into the air and their lungs.
Leading to the question of how much is really being accomplished given the enormity of the problem, which was widely unheard of for decades, and given that electronics makers aren't inclined to curb sales for the sake of the environment. However good their green initiatives are, there are still more PCs, monitors, cell phones, TVs and other electronics sold every year that have to be disposed of at some point, no matter what they're made of.
"One thing we need to be able to do is to separate the reality from the hype," says IT analyst Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. On one hand, companies that are out in front with environmental protection programs ought to let that message be known, and be lauded for their efforts, but on the other hand "they may be seen as opportunistic." So they ask analysts like Kay how to handle the marketing spiel. "It's not completely obvious what the right way to do it is."
The magnitude of e-waste is partly responsible for that. The Computer TakeBack Campaign, based in San Jose, California, uses U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures to illustrate the need for everyone in the chain -- manufacturers to consumers, be they businesses or individuals -- to take responsibility. In the U.S. alone, 2.63 million tons of e-waste were generated in 2005, with more than 87 percent of that winding up in landfills or incinerators. Of the mere 330,000 tons that were "recovered" for recycling, some percentage estimated to be between 50 percent and 80 percent was shipped outside of the U.S. after being disposed of, the campaign says on its Web site.
It also bears noting that there is no such thing as totally "green" manufacturing of anything. All such processes have some effect on the environment, including burning fossil fuels to get goods from one place to another. And there will always be people who simply don't care, who are content to toss e-waste into landfills or let it be someone else's problem to deal with.
But positive changes are occurring, spurred by heightened awareness about e-waste, government initiatives -- including in the European Union, Japan and a few U.S. states -- and market forces. Companies including Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Xerox Corp. -- and that is far from a complete list -- are in the vanguard and some of them have been since well before Al Gore got everyone's attention about the perils of trashing the environment. Besides using less toxic material in products and focusing on full lifecycle issues, many IT companies also have internal environmentally focused initiatives and goals, such as improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Kirstie McIntyre, HP's takeback compliance manager across Europe and specifically the U.K. and Ireland, has spent her 15-year-career focused on environmental issues. She spoke to issues related to e-waste and recycling from her base outside of London on a day when climate change was a hot topic because the news was dominated by widespread floods in England.
Her job is to make sure that HP is complying with regulations established in the European Union's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, or WEEE, which became law in February 2003, with member states given until August 2005 for implementation, though not all nations met that date.
WEEE makes equipment manufacturers responsible for disposing of e-waste generated by goods they produce, and the disposal must be ecologically friendly. The E.U. banned the use of certain toxic materials in the production of electronics, including household appliances. Those regulations are having a predictable ripple effect because electronics manufacturers aren't likely to make products for one set of countries that are composed of different materials or to fulfill different standards from those marketed in other places.
"The reason HP takes something like WEEE so seriously and the reason they've got someone like me working full time on it is that by 2010, we reckon that 75 percent of our global sales will be in countries that have some sort of WEEE directive," McIntyre says. Other large IT vendors are in the same situation.
For HP, "it wasn't really much of a stretch, it wasn't something new," to comply with WEEE, says McIntyre, adding that the company has had a "takeback" program for reclaiming, recycling and disposing of its products since 1987, with a "design for environment" program since 1992, aimed at "designing our products to be easier and therefore cheaper to recycle at the end of life."
Along those lines, HP has reduced the number of types of plastics it uses in products from hundreds to just five and has developed a printer pre-prototype made from corn-starch plastic, which degrades naturally and so could just be tossed on the backyard compost heap when it's time to buy a new one. HP engineers have made seven of the printers, which have been taken out on tours. It's considered to be in the "pre" stage, though, because "it's not feasible on a global level at the moment," McIntyre says. "We sent it to Singapore and it melted, it couldn't withstand the heat."
Which raises the "meanwhile" issue: "How do we handle today's environment and how is that ultimately affected four, five, six, seven years down the line when we're hopefully in a world that has much more green IT equipment," asks Chris Adam, director, NextPhase Services, the asset management services division of Converge Global Trading Exchange in Peabody, Massachusetts.
"We have a gap going on that is just now starting to be created through the green manufacturing initiatives ... to get those green IT assets out there into the field, but in the meantime we still have all this other stuff that is out there in the field or sitting in storerooms waiting for someone to figure out what is the best way to dispose of it," he says.
That's where asset management companies like NextPhase come in, providing planning, data security, remarketing and recycling services -- the range of "asset disposal." NextPhase keeps up with regulations such as WEEE and tracks what is going on in the U.S., where a lack of federal legislation means that states are dealing with e-waste and related issues individually. Maine, California, Maryland, Washington, Minnesota, Texas, Oregon and Connecticut have passed e-waste laws that are in various phases of implementation.
"It doesn't lend itself to a consistent platform," to take that sort of piecemeal approach since the laws all vary, says Adam.
Even so, end users -- both businesses and households -- are increasingly demanding that the e-waste problem be dealt with and that vendors produce more environmentally friendly products, while making it easier to dispose of old ones. "Many [enterprises] in the last year to year and a half have developed a heightened sense of consciousness and a heightened sense of doing the right thing," when it comes to disposing of electronics, he says.
However, as Adam notes, "until they make a biodegradable plastic or a biodegradable PC board," the balance still tilts toward e-waste as a global problem. "It's all around education as far as understanding how much material is still out there. As far as I'm concerned, we have just seen the tip of the iceberg." The forecast, he says, is that 1 billion "assets," or individual pieces of electronics -- monitors, PCs, printers, cell phones, personal digital assistants, etcetera -- will have to be disposed of in the next five years.
Companies talk about their goals to reduce per unit emissions, to cut the greenhouse gases they emit, to be more energy efficient in their own offices and also in manufacturing, but those goals have to be seen in the context of the entire corporation's mission, analyst Kay points out. Of course, not a one of them intends to sell fewer products. That means that even when they meet lofty emission reduction goals and make advances in green manufacturing, they will still have an overall greater environmental footprint in 2010, which is a target date many set for such goals, than this year.
"It's less than it would have been, but it's not as little as it would be if they sold fewer units," Kay says. Besides that, though, the truth of the matter is that "the underlying cost of all environmental damage is over population," and that's the topic no one wants to tackle, and it is indicative of the limits of what can be accomplished by even the most economically friendly IT companies. "It really has to do with the impact of humans on the environment and people are really reluctant to look closely at that because they want to think you can have it all. But you can't have it all," he says. "We're not being very wise as a species."