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Green PC
How to dispose of unwanted tech equipment without hassles, and where to find great new environmentally friendly gear.

Jamais Cascio, PC World
PC World
Tuesday, May 23, 2006 12:10 AM

Find Your Nearest Recycling Center

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.

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.

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.

Power It Down

Turn it off. Take a look at the monitor in front of you, and you'll notice a little light next to the power button. Chances are, when you shut off your PC, the screen goes black and the indicator light turns yellow, signaling that the monitor has "gone to sleep." Sleep mode uses a lot less energy than full-power mode, but it still draws anywhere from 1 to 5 watts of power (and on some devices, it may draw much more).

Environmentalists refer to this energy expenditure as a "vampire load"; and while any single device may add just a couple of dollars a year to your power bill, the combined cost of all the "sleeping" equipment in your house--speakers, printers, stereo components, the microwave, TVs, and maybe your PC--can really add up.

Don't just let hardware go to sleep when you're done using it: Turn it off. Modern equipment has no trouble handling the physical stress of being turned on and off, and you can save enough money over the course of a year by eliminating vampire loads to pay for a nice dinner out--typically $50 to $100. (Check out Becky Waring's April 2006Power Saving Tipscolumn, " Save Money by Putting Your PC on a Power Diet ," for more information on what you can do to reduce your hardware's power use.)

Switch to an LCD. If you haven't already upgraded your monitor, consider doing so. Besides saving desktop space, you'll save money on electricty. A typical old-style 20-inch CRT monitor consumes about 150 watts of power, while a new 20-inch flat-panel LCD uses about 30 watts; the difference in energy expense amounts to about $20 a year for a typical U.S. user. (Click here to see our latest LCD reviews.)

But what about the rest of your hardware? Usually it's easy to find the power consumption ratings on hardware packaging before you buy. To compare a new item that you're considering to a product that you already have (and whose package has long since disappeared), buy an inexpensive portable power meter. Models such as the Kill A Watt (about $20 to $30) let you see precisely how much energy a plug-in gadget uses. And since the readout occurs in real time, you can gauge the gadget's power consumption in sleep mode as well as during active use.

Power up with the sun. Solar power technology is improving and getting cheaper all the time. These days, you can easily find solar-based products for charging your phone, your MP3 player, and even your laptop.

For example, Solio's solar power charger ($79, with connectors for either cell phones or an iPod) isn't much bigger than a music player and generates up to 8 watts of continuous power--enough to recharge your phone or PDA in a couple of hours. Voltaic's solar bags ($239) put out similar power and come in convenient bags; the four models include backpack and messenger bag forms. And ScotteVest makes several models of jackets (starting at about $250) that are designed to hold electronic gear; a flat, flexible solar panel mounted on the back recharges all your gear on the go. The panel's charging cord runs through hidden pockets inside the ScotteVest coat, so you never have to worry about getting tangled up.

None of these chargers will work with your laptop, however. That task calls for a combination of solar panels and an external battery to store the charge. One such combo ($345), from RadioLabs , works with most laptops.

Recycle via the company that made your gear. Some companies, like Dell and Apple, will recycle your old computer for free when you buy a new computer from them. Apple will even take 10 percent off the price of a new iPod if you turn in your old one at any Apple Store.

HP goes even further, offering a trade-in discount on all kinds of new hardware if you send the company your old printer, camera, computer, or similar hardware for recycling. Even computers from a few years ago can command a trade-in value of up to several hundred dollars. Meanwhile, competing peripheral manufacturers, such as Lexmark and Canon, offer basic fee-based recycling of their products--a roundabout way of saying that you pay them to get rid of the old equipment.

Canadian buyers Toshiba notebooks can take advantage of the company's TERRE (Toshiba's Environmental Recovery and Recycling Effort) program , which currently offers a free USB flash drive as an incentive for turning in a nonfunctional laptop for recycling--all the participant needs to do is print out a UPS label from the Toshiba Web site.

It's a good idea to check your vendor's site for information about its recycling programs; you may have to pay a recycling fee if you aren't buying something new, but the vendor will take the unwanted device off your hands and dispose of it properly.

Bonus tip: Remember to remove all of your data from any hardware you choose to recycle before sending it in. Check out Andrew Brandt's February 2006Privacy Watchcolumn, " Make Sure Your Old Computer Tells No Tales ," for tips on wiping your PC, and read his MarchPrivacy Watchcolumn, " Wipe Your Cell Phone's Memory Before Giving It Away ," for tips on erasing data from your cell phone.

Give It Away

Donate your old PC to a good cause. Many people are are reluctant to throw away or recycle an obsolete yet functional computer. Even if your local elementary school won't take it, various organizations can use old but serviceable hardware to help communities around the world and to prolong the equipment's useful life. As an incentive, if you donate to a recognized nonprofit organization, you may get a tax break.

InterConnection Computer Donation , for example, uses donated computers to set up computer and communications centers for economic development and disaster relief. Computer Aid International provides similar services but focuses its work on impoverished parts of Africa. Portland, Oregon-based Free Geek works with donated hardware to teach computer skills to low-income residents of U.S. communities. The Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network project takes a different approach, building equipment out of old and donated computers to operate wireless community networks; CUWIN projects are now in operation in low-income areas of Illinois, as well as in Ghana and South Africa. Shipping costs are on your dime, and you don't get paid for the hardware, but you do get to help make the world a better place.

Recycle locally. If you're tired of having old hardware fill up your closets, and your vendor won't take it back, you still have options. In many localities, the garbage dump, a hardware store, or an office supply retailer will gladly take the old equipment off your hands and dispose of it properly (sometimes for a small fee).

The Electronic Industries Alliance lists agencies and companies that can recycle your used equipment, along with consumer information about toxic materials. Earth 911 lets you search for electronic recycling centers by zip code. And the Basel Action Network ties electronics recycling to other social concerns; BAN also maintains a list of recyclers that pledge to uphold a set of ethical standards. The cost of recycling hardware can vary considerably, from nothing to about $30, but many locations regularly host free electronics recycling drives to encourage responsible disposal; the Earth911 site links to such efforts around the country.

Hosted by eBay, the Rethink Initiative brings together over two dozen top technology manufacturers, retailers, and interested nonprofit organizations to figure out ways to help consumers dispose of e-waste responsibly. Not surprisingly, eBay's number one tip is to sell your old hardware, but the site also offers links to services that accept old computer hardware for recycling. Rethink also sponsors recycling events and provides tips and tools for encouraging e-waste recycling in your community.

Postpone new PC purchases. Be honest--are you buying a new PC because you need it or because you want it? One sensible way to be a green technophile is to buy new gear less often. Such restraint reduces your contribution to production and disposal wastes--and the longer you wait, the likelier you are to get a cleaner and faster machine when you do buy new.

That doesn't mean you forgo any boost, though. More RAM, a better video card, even a processor upgrade can make your old PC feel new again, besides saving you money and producing less e-waste. (Check out " Reinvent Your PC " and " Get More Out of Your PC " for an array of upgrade ideas.)

In the end, "reduce, reuse, recycle" should be your guide. Reduce the amount of energy and materials by your gear requires by choosing hardware that's manufactured as cleanly and that runs as efficiently as possible. Reuse what you can instead of simply trashing it; the steps you take can be as simple as reusing the back side of printouts for drafts and notes, or as serious as transforming your old computers into wireless routers (see James Martin's April 2005Mobile Computingcolumn, " Old Notebooks, New Lives ," for tips on turning an old notebook into a jukebox). Recycle whatever is left over, giving the component material new life and keeping it out of the waste stream.

The best thing about going cybergreen is that you're already doing it, whether you know it or not. Manufacturers are cleaning up their product lines to meet global regulations, and they're incorporating high-efficiency components to meet the demands of government and corporate buyers. You may not have bought your IBM flat-panel display or your HP laptop to save energy, and you may not have known that your new Dell OptiPlex contains no polybrominated biphenyls--but the planet benefits from those changes nonetheless.

Hardware makers recognize that environmental friendliness is an increasingly important issue for consumers, corporate buyers, and governments, and they are taking some impressive steps to clean up their act. In fact, the computer industry may be about to change the world again--this time, for the greener.

More Resources

For more information on thinking green with technology, or for other things you can do, check out the following sites and services.

Green Corporate Citizens List: The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is composed of recognized experts on the clean production, use, and disposal of electronic hardware. As part of their "clean computing" project, they release a regular report card that assesses how well major computer hardware manufacturers meet a broad set of e-waste-related criteria. SVTC released its most recent survey in March 2006. HP came out on top, followed closely by Dell. This organization looks only at toxic materials, not energy use, so it pays to check multiple sources.

Carbon Credit: If you can't run on solar power, and your boss turned down your proposal to put a windmill on the roof, you can still compensate for the greenhouse gases emissions released in the process of generating the power your PC uses by buying "carbon offsets," from organizations such as Carbon Balanced , Carbonfund.org , or TerraPass . A growing number of companies invite you to help reduce overall carbon emissions by planting more trees or purchasing "carbon credits" on the global market. Most such companies focus on balancing out the carbon from driving or air travel, but some offer a chance to calculate (and offset) the greenhouse impact of your energy use.

International Standards: The toughest standards in the world are the European Union's Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) rules. Set to go into effect in July 2006, RoHS and related laws prohibit manufacturers from using six once-common substances now known to be dangerous. They also require that electronics manufacturers accept for recycling anything that they make. Every hardware maker that wants to do business in Europe must meet these new e-waste rules. Currently, 24 U.S. states--including Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois--either have adopted or are considering adopting similar recycling and take-back laws.

Domestic Regulations: The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition maintains a map of state-by-state take-back efforts . Meanwhile, E-Recycle provides details of what might serve as model legislation for many U.S. states: California's Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003, which gives manufacturers a choice between developing their own take-back strategies or adding a small fee to the purchase price of many types of hardware to fund statewide recycling efforts.

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