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Dirty devices: the IT industry's environmental impact

IT manufacturers are competing to reduce their environmental footprint with some carbon-neutral smoke and mirrors.

IT manufacturers are competing to reduce their environmental footprint—with some carbon-neutral smoke and mirrors

Juha Saarinen

[Technology]

Quick question: what uses around 19 million litres of water and up to quarter of a billion kilowatt hours of electricity every day, and produces a slew of toxic chemicals and gases that can cause pregnant employees to miscarriage?

Correct: that would be your average semiconductor fabrication plant. Making digital devices is a dirty business and that’s a fact IT manufacturers don’t like to talk about. Add in the environmental impact of packaging, shipping, powering and cooling the gear, and IT is starting to look distinctly filthy.

The Internet saves on physical media—software discs, their packaging, shipping and recycling—but that broadband connection of yours is an energy-hungry beast that lengthens the life of wasteful copper lines instead of encouraging the use of more efficient optical cables. The data centres that host your cloud computing apps and files are hardly poster boys for sustainability, either.

Electronics equipment is also notoriously short-lived. Not necessarily because it stops working, but because something bigger, faster and shinier comes along that’s cheaper than the stuff you bought last week.

Recycling of IT end electronics material is done rarely, if at all, and not everything is accepted. Selling old gear or even giving it away is out as nobody wants your obsolete junk. Older gear or the wrong brand usually means a trip to the landfill, no matter how ridiculous it feels to throw away technology that works and contains reusable materials but is past its short sell-by date.

The New Zealand eDay 2009, held on September 12, apparently ensured that 976 tonnes of electronic waste material didn’t go into landfills. That was made up of 83,536 items from around the country that will now be recycled.

Nobody wants your obsolete junk. Older gear or the wrong brand usually means a trip to the landfill, no matter how ridiculous it feels to throw away technology that works and contains reusable materials but is past its short sell-by date

Of course, the IT industry is aware that it can’t continue to ride roughshod over the planet and large companies like Intel and Dell are making efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of IT equipment manufacturing. Apple, predictably enough, has decided to turn the issue on its head and is now accounting for its environmental footprint with a great deal of publicity. It says most green rankings are based on promises and good intentions rather than actual achievements, and don’t count the impact of their products once they’ve left the company’s control. So Apple has published its own data on the carbon cost of its gadgets, from mining raw materials to the electricity consumed by its products after they’re sold.

Since there are millions, perhaps even billions, of electronic devices sold every year, Apple’s move is a smart one: IT devices are entrenched in our modern existence and won’t go away any time soon. You want to be able buy that iPhone or iMac with good conscience knowing that when it’s time to retire it, it’ll be recycled. Well, mostly at least. Also, Apple will sell you a new device that’s less environmentally damaging than the old one.

Insisting that your IT supplier has a full recycling scheme in place is no different to ensuring that your car doesn’t end up rotting away in a polluting scrap heap somewhere.

This may seem an additional burden for business, but it’s an opportunity too. Intel and IBM are never going to make microprocessors here, but nothing should stop us from coming up with designs, technologies, production methods and perhaps packaging and shipping that fit those companies’ need for sustainable innovation.

That seems to be a natural fit for New Zealanders, who aren’t spoilt by vast resources and scale and therefore need to be more flexible and adaptable. Think of it as injecting hi-tech to rescue the frayed 100% Pure New Zealand concept, arguably our most valuable national asset, and consider the gauntlet thrown. Who will be the first to go onto the large conglomerates’ lists of approved sustainable suppliers?

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