Promoting green electronics in government

January 17, 2012

As the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “green electronics lady,” Holly D. Elwood works to make sure that the computers and other electronics purchased by the federal government are as environmentally friendly as possible.

In the process, Elwood uses the government’s huge buying power to create a market for green products, leading to a cleaner environment and better options for consumers.

“The beauty of the project is that we’ve harnessed supply and demand to green the marketplace,” said Elwood, project manager of the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program. “This program has greened the supply chain and product offerings worldwide.”

Elwood not only helps agencies buy computers, but she assists with the development of standards that define what exactly a green product is – the first question suppliers tend to ask, she said.

Federal purchasers now are required to buy computers listed on a global registry known as “EPEAT” that is based on a standard Elwood helped create with other interested parties. This Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool is the largest rating system for electronics.


(Holly Elwood/EPA)

EPEAT requires products meet criteria in eight environmental performance categories that look at such factors such as the product’s longevity, its packaging and the level of environmentally sensitive materials it contains.

The entire federal government is in compliance with the requirement that 95 percent of the products it buys and uses meet the EPEAT standards. That’s an excellent compliance record, according to Elwood, who has worked on EPA’s efforts to encourage green purchasing since the environmentally preferable purchasing program’s inception in 1993.

The federal government’s buying power ends up putting green computers in consumers’ hands too. Shoppers can find EPEAT registered electronics at stores and on popular websites, such as Amazon and Best Buy. And, all top computer sellers have at least some EPEAT-registered products available for purchase. (The iPad does not appear on the product registry. It is considered a “slate,” not a computer, Elwood said.)

Elwood has worked on EPA pollution prevention efforts for nearly two decades. She was involved in an environmental accounting project that helped companies integrate environmental costs into their decision-making. She also worked on an EPA initiative called Hospitals for a Healthy Environment aimed at helping hospitals decrease their overall impact on the environment.

She now is contributing to the development of the standards for televisions, copiers and fax machines by working with businesses that produce and supply such goods as well as with state and local governments, advocacy groups and academic institutions. Her role is harnessing the expertise of the EPA and bringing together interested parties to hammer out new standards that manufacturers can use for the next generation of electronic products.

“She can draw in experts on many topics and is always willing to call upon them to figure those things out,” said Judy Levin, pollution prevention co-director, Center for Environmental Health in California.

So far, more than 400 people with different interests have participated in developing the standards for assessing the environment impact of televisions and imaging equipment.

“Getting that many people to agree on anything is difficult,” Elwood said. She hopes the standards will be finalized this spring.

Levin said it’s important to have a government purchaser involved in how worldwide specifications on electronics should move forward. Elwood is doing a good job representing the public interest, Levin added.

“She’s really out there making sure environmental protection is being fully considered as we develop this standard,” said Levin.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/fed-player to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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