Creating Green Technology from the Roots Up

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Toxic Out; Green In

Fujitsu's push for products that are environmentally sound from inception through disposal exemplifies the growing design-for-environment trend.

Harrell says he sees manufacturers phasing out a number of toxic chemicals, including lead, mercury and cadmium. Some are working to replace other toxins, such as PVC and BFR, with materials that so far have proved to be less dangerous.

However, he and others still see room for improvement.

A February 2008 Greenpeace report (download PDF) says the fate of up to 80% of e-waste in the U.S. is unknown, because much of it is still sent to landfills and incinerators or illegally exported for dumping in Africa or rudimentary recycling in Asia.

Harrell says manufacturers need to do more, too. For instance, Nintendo of America Inc. in Redmond, Wash., ranked at the very bottom of Greenpeace's electronics guide. Nintendo did not respond to requests for comment.

To be fair, Nintendo isn't the only company Greenpeace cited in a May report called "Playing Dirty" (download PDF) , which examined the use of hazardous chemicals and materials in gaming console components. Greenpeace looked at Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 Elite, the 40GB Sony PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii. It didn't detect cadmium or mercury in any of those game systems' components, but it found lead and chromium at relatively low concentrations in some samples and PVC in a number of flexible materials (wire and cable coatings) in all of the consoles.

Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony have committed to making greener products. According to the Greenpeace report, Microsoft said it would stop using PVC and BFR in its hardware by 2010, Nintendo said it would eliminate PVC in its products but has not committed to a date, and Sony said it would phase out PVC and certain uses of BFR in its mobile products by 2010.

Customers Are Watching

ChiYoung Oh, environmental products manager at Samsung Electronics Co. in Seoul, says that consumers expect top brands to have high environmental standards and that corporate customers want to know about green programs, even if contracts aren't won or lost because of them.

Samsung has a number of initiatives it can show to customers, Oh said in an e-mailed statement. In 2004, the company introduced a formal eco-design process that incorporates attention to resource efficiency, environmental hazards and energy efficiency. The process is linked to the company's quality certification process, which means environmental factors are considered part of product quality.

Samsung incorporates recycled materials in new products when possible and focuses on making products easier to recycle. It has simplified screws and fasteners to make products easier to break down into components, reduced the number of materials used in order to facilitate material separation, and ensured that plastics are marked in accordance with international standards to aid recycling.

Likewise, Sun Microsystems Inc. thinks about disassembly as it designs its products, making sure they come apart quickly and mostly without tools, according to Dermot Duggan, Sun's director of eco-innovation solutions. The company even moved ID stickers from plastic parts to sheet metal, because clean plastic is more valuable for recycling.

Such efforts make a difference, says Jake Player, president of TechTurn Inc., an Austin-based company that recycles and refurbishes technology equipment.

"We're seeing [manufacturers] work with us on how to make the computers easier to recycle," Player says.

For example, hard drives now snap out, and chassis snap apart. There's less use of metals and other components that can't easily be separated, and there's more compatibility of components across the manufacturers' own product lines.

Player says his company can refurbish and resell 80% of the 1 million assets it handles annually. Those include data center equipment, scanners, fax machines, phones, docking stations and computer speakers. The remaining materials can be recycled.

Today, says Player, "manufacturers are designing these products with [recyclers] in mind, whereas five years ago they weren't."

This story, "Creating Green Technology from the Roots Up" was originally published by Computerworld.

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