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These days, it's easier than ever to be both technologically advanced and environmentally responsible. Best of all, working green can save you a bit of money and help you safely and legally clear out some of the tech junk currently cluttering up your garage, while helping preserve the planet. But just what does "green" mean when it comes to computers?
There are two ways to be environmentally aware when shopping for technology: The first is to use the most energy-efficient hardware possible, saving money on operating costs and reducing the amount of energy you use (which incidentally reduces your greenhouse gas footprint as well).
The second is to start from the get-go, buying products that have been made from the cleanest, greenest materials possible, reducing the quantity of toxic metals and chemicals used to make your tech toys. That helps everyone when the time comes to recycle or dispose of your gear because it prevents those toxins from entering landfills and groundwater.
Remember, the older the technology, the more likely it is to be full of hazardous chemicals; so make sure your obsolete gadgets end their days by being properly recycled, rather than tossed in a dumpster.
Trouble With the Law?
In some jurisdictions, simply discarding a dead PC is now against the law. Because computer hardware--along with MP3 players, digital cameras, and mobile phones--contains such a witch's brew of toxic metals and carcinogenic chemicals, a number of increasingly tough regulations govern what can go into such equipment and how you should dispose of it.
Most of these laws focus on big companies, and they may carry fines of up to $25,000 for noncompliance; but legislators from New York to Oregon are looking at ways to expand compliance to individual consumers who try to dump dead monitors and broken laptops into the garbage.
Tips for Going Green
Here are eight easy-to-follow tips for getting your green on, high-tech style.
Vote with your dollars. Choose an environmentally sound product from the get-go, and pick a manufacturer that offers a good recycling program. Many major vendors offer such products, and there's no performance downside. In some cases, you may even get free merchandise or discounts when you support recycling programs.
For example, Toshiba now makes a series of laptops for North America that meet the extremely stringent European standards for hazardous substances; one consumer model in this line, the Satellite A55-S1064, sells for less than $700 at Wal-Mart. And manufacturers for the consumer market aren't the only ones making green options available. This March, Sun launched the Sun Fire Eco-Servers ($3495 and up), a line of servers built to maximize energy efficiency.
Overall, Hewlett-Packard remains the green industry leader. HP has entirely eliminated some of the worst chemicals (the so-called polybrominated biphenyls) from plastics used in its product lines, and the company claims that more than 400 of its current and past computers--including the dv4000 laptop and the dx5150 business computer (equipped with an AMD Athlon 4000+ CPU)--meet Energy Star energy efficiency rules. Every HP toner cartridge comes with a free mailing label for shipping back the depleted unit; and in 2005, HP recycled over 63 million kilograms of computer hardware sent in by users.
Dell is catching up with HP, having recycled over 35 million kilograms in the past fiscal year. Its newly released Sustainability Report outlines aggressive new policies to reduce or eliminate toxic materials in hardware production, improve energy efficiency, and boost the rate of computer recycling among its customers. Dell expects to have completely eliminated the use of polybrominated biphenyls from its equipment by June of this year. Currently, only the company's OptiPlex line conforms to these new toxic material restrictions; at this writing, the Dimension series does not yet meet the new requirements.
A number of organizations want to help you make the clean and green choice, and government standards provide a basis for figuring out how your options compare. If you live in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star guidelines help you find hardware that does the most with the least power. The EPA now lists nearly 500 current desktop computers that satisfy Energy Star guidelines, including the Dell OptiPlex GX520 series and the Apple iMac. (All Apple computers have met Energy Star standards since 2001.) Readers who live in Europe can check out products that meet the Eco-label standards; these are a bit broader than the ones in the U.S. EPA's Energy Star program, covering both energy efficiency and toxic materials.