The global call for action to live our lives in a more ecologically responsible way, limiting waste and preserving our environment, has finally reached the world of computing. Office equipment has been for years a source of pollution and waste, producing tons of non-recyclable plastics, dangerous chemicals, and massive amounts of non-biodegradable components.
While this source of pollution has been mostly overlooked because of the relatively limited quantities of computers and peripherals produced in the past, the skyrocketing sales trends of the last decade have made this a very urgent and relevant issue. Many computers and peripherals manufacturers are becoming more sensitive to the problems associated with disposal and recycling of computing hardware as well as energy savings, but most could do a lot better in designing products with a lesser impact on long term pollution and energy consumption.
Social and ecological responsibility extends to all segments of the world population, yet the actions of some groups can have more relevant effects than others. Small businesses are quickly becoming very strong consumers of information technology hardware and as such they have the responsibility to make sustainable choices and drive their preference towards manufacturers that strive to improve the friendliness of their products towards our planet.
There are many simple, yet substantial ways small businesses can manage their technology in an eco-friendly way and help reduce pollution and energy waste. Here are some impactful ideas you can act upon today.
1. Purchase equipment with low content of dangerous chemicals
Computer hardware tends to contain a lot of toxic substances, and while most manufacturers are pledging to reduce or eliminate pollutants, some are doing better than others.
Toxic elements that may be contained in computing equipment include lead, mercury, nickel, cadmium, arsenic, cobalt, zinc, germanium, as well as aluminum, copper, and titanium. These are mostly treated as poison by the human body and can cause a wide range of health problems. When equipment is disposed in a landfill, its toxic elements begin to seep into the ground and may percolate into waterways, spreading into the ecosystem. Take a look at this detailed report from Greenpeace.Choosing equipment built with the least amount of pollutants is one of the keys to limit this growing damage. Greenpeace rates products and manufacturers on a yearly basis in the group's "Guide to Greener Electronics".
2. Use rechargeable batteries
Disposable batteries still have a huge amount of pollutants such as mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, and silver. Some recycling programs are now in place to properly dispose of batteries, but the sheer quantity used makes it difficult to be effective. Use 'nickel metal hydride' rechargeable batteries where possible instead. They contain almost no toxic heavy metals and can be easily disposed at the end of their life. They have become much cheaper in the last few years, recharge faster and last longer. Chargers also have become inexpensive and small. Some batteries can even plug directly into a computer USB port to recharge.
3. Use small solar panels to recharge your phone, iPod, or other small electronics.
Lots of smart and small solar chargers are now available. They save you money and can charge your equipment on the road with no dependency on electric outlets. Expect more powerful models to be able to recharge laptops in the near future.
For more ideas on solar energy, see this eco-friendly tech products slideshow on IncTechnology.
4. Purchase energy efficient equipment
The U.S. government has established a certification program for energy efficient electronics called 'Energy Star.' Equipment that meets the low energy consumption requirements of for the certification can display the 'Energy Star' logo. You can find more about the program, as well as a complete list of certified computing products here.
5. Use a laptop instead of a desktop computer
Laptops are much more energy efficient and use fewer materials for their production than desktops. Not to mention that they end up increasing your productivity and workday flexibility allowing you to work where you need and when you need – making telecommuting a few days per week a much more viable option, helping you save gas and commute time.
6. Enable energy management policies on your computer
Modern desktop PCs use a lot of electricity, the equivalent of four to seven traditional 60W light bulbs. To reduce energy waste and make your utility bill smaller, place computers in 'hibernate' mode when you leave the office. This will allow them to restart in a blink, but use no electricity while idling. You can also set your computer power policy to make it go on stand-by (or sleep mode) after a few minutes of inactivity. The computer will resume almost instantly, but while you are at lunch or in a meeting, your PC will use close to no power. Visit Climate Savers Smart Computing for complete information about power management.
7. Recycle your old equipment
If you have old, but still functional equipment that you are not using, donate it to a school or to programs like Goodwill. You can get a tax deduction, extend the life of the equipment and benefit a needy organization. A comprehensive list of options can be found at TechSoup. For non-functioning equipment you can rely upon a growing number of recycling centers. You can find your local options at Earth911. It is also very important to recycle your printer cartridges, considering how often they are replaced. Most office supply stores have drop boxes for used ones and some offer refilling programs for both laser and inkjet models, allowing substantially cutting on printing costs while helping the environment.
Your choices can make a difference and your purchases will guide the design and production decisions of the future. Choose wisely, it's your planet.
Andrea Peiro is a recognized authority, author, analyst and speaker on high-tech marketing and use of information technology in small and mid-sized businesses. He has been frequently interviewed and featured in such media outlets as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Inc. If you have ideas about green tech, please reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.