Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 150 / MARCH 1993 / PAGE S3

How to make computing friendly to the environment. (includes bibliography) (Compute's Getting Started with Computers, Health, & the Environment)

Like many people, you're probably trying to do the right thing for the environment. Maybe you recycle your newspapers or bike to work instead of driving. Still, you might be surprised to learn that your PC can be harmful to the environment, too. In fact, every time you use your PC, you're contributing to the greenhouse effect, helping to destroy the ozone layer, and adding to the millions of tons of solid waste generated by computers all over the world. And that impact is growing as fast as the number of people who own and use computers.

Here are some statistics to ponder:

* According to a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency, a fully equipped PC requires about 200 watts of power for normal operation. Running that machine during business hours consumes 400 kilowatt/hours of electricity annually. (A kilowatt/hour is the standard measure of energy consumption.) Burning the oil it takes to generate all that juice releases more than 50 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, contributing significantly to global warming.

* The world's PC users feed at least 120 billion sheets of letter-sized paper into their printers each year. It takes more than 9 million trees, or about 200 square miles of forest, to make that much paper.

* There are more floppy disks in the world today--some 5.75 billion--than there are people. They'll all end up in landfills someday, and they'll never biodegrade.

* When all the PCs now being used become obsolete, they'll make a 3.6-million-ton mountain of solid waste. PCs are mostly made of plastic, and these plastic parts will last essentially unchanged for millennia. When dumped into landfills, toxic materials from PC batteries and monitors can leach into the soil and the ground water.

People aren't going to stop using PCs just because they harm the environment, just as they're not going to stop using cars or air conditioners. The trick is to use your PC in a way that keeps the harm to a minimum. Here are six relatively simple, low-cost steps that any PC user can take to reduce the environmental impact of computing--and save money, too.

1. Turn off your PC when you're not working.

Saving power is the first and easiest step toward environmentally friendly computing. All you have to do is turn off your PC, monitor, and peripherals when you're not using them. The benefits are considerable: Every kilowatt/hour saved through energy conservation keeps two pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, thus retarding the progress of global warming. And that kilowatt/hour saved is a dime you're not paying to the power utility. If you save just one kilowatt/hour each workday by turning off your PC, fax machine, copier, and lights during your lunch hour and coffee breaks, you'll save $25 a year.

Some people argue that it's bad for PCs, and especially hard disks, to be switched on and off, but that theory just doesn't hold water. Today's PC is generally so well made that it's likely to operate well beyond its useful lifespan, no matter how often you turn it on or off. Studies by IBM show that the life of a PC monitor is directly related to the number of hours it's used. The more it's on, the shorter its life will be.

If you can't bring yourself to turn off your PC every time you get up from your desk, at least turn off your monitor, printer, and lights. They use more watts than the PC itself.

2. Choose low-power computers.

When shopping for a new PC, choose hardware that's energy efficient. Generally, the smaller and less expandable the PC, the less power it draws. Notebook computers consume much less power than desktop PCs, so if you can live with a notebook's other limitations, it's the most energy-efficient choice.

In 1992, the EPA announced the Energy Star Computer Program, a set of guidelines for low-power desktop PCs. Energy Star-compliant PCs will automatically enter a sleep mode when they're inactive, just as most notebook PCs do today. The EPA estimates that by the turn of the century, Energy Star PCs could conserve 25 billion kilowatt/hours of power, saving rate payers $1 billion in annual electricity bills and preventing yearly atmospheric emissions of 20 million tons of carbon dioxide, 140,000 tons of sulfur dioxides, and 75,000 tons of nitrogen oxides.

IBM, Apple, Compaq, and other major PC manufacturers have enrolled in the program. Look for the Energy Star logo--a neon star--on PC packaging this summer.

3. Print less and save paper.

Despite early predictions that PCs would usher in the age of the paperless office, paper is still the single biggest waste product in the PC office. All that office paper--a trillion sheets in the U.S. alone, much of it generated on PCs--means clearcut forests, polluted waterways, and clogged landfills.

You may not be able to give up paper, but you can reduce your paper use. Get more on each printed page by using a smaller type size, decreasing the line leading (the blank space between lines of type), and leaving narrower margins. Printing utilities, such as 4Print, TreeSaver, and PRNCOL, help you save even more paper by printing several reduced sheets on one page or printing on two sides of the paper. Using a fax modem and e-mail to send documents is faster, cheaper, and paper-thrifty, too.

4. Re-ink ribbons and recharge toner cartridges.

In the United States, 95 out of 100 printer ribbons are used once and tossed in the landfill. In Japan, however, workers re-ink printer ribbons and return worn-out ones to the manufacturer.

Re-inking your own ribbons not only saves space in landfills, but also saves money. Individual ribbons can be re-inked up to 100 times using the ribbon reinking machines from Computer Friends or Ribbon Factory. You'll only have to re-ink a ribbon about ten times to make back the cost of the re-inker. You also can buy squeeze-bottle ink refills for Hewlett-Packard and Cannon inkjet printers.

Laser-printer toner cartridges also are reusable. The American Cartridge Recycling Association, the American Ribbon Company, and EcoCartridge, among other companies, will refurbish, refill, and return your empty cartridge to you at half the price of buying a new one. Kyocera makes a laser printer, the Ecosys aSi, that's really environmentally conscious--it doesn't use toner cartridges at all.

5. Recycle batteries.

An increasing number of laptop and notebook computers are sold every day--and most of them use batteries containing hazardous, toxic materials. The rechargeable ni-cads commonly used in notebooks contain the toxic heavy metal, cadmium. In fact, ni-cads used in portable electronics are the largest source of cadmium in the waste stream.

Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries contain no cadmium and are less harmful to the environment. They're appearing in newer notebooks from Toshiba, Compaq, and other manufacturers. Even if you're still using ni-cads, however, you should dispose of them properly. By the time you read this, the major notebook manufacturers should be offering battery recycling programs. The Complete Portable is one company that will fully recondition and recharge old batteries, and properly dispose of them if they've reached the end of the road. Or you can call your municipal department of public works to see if your community has a battery collection program.

6. Recycle your PC and software.

Given today's low prices for new PCs, you may be planning to upgrade to a new machine. But don't toss out your old PC into the landfill. Pass it on to an organization that can make good use of it, like Educational Assistance Limited (EAL), the East-West Educational Foundation, or the National Christina Foundation. Most public schools are desperate for computers, too, especially DOS-based PCs. Before you give it away, get you PC ready--format the hard disk, reinstall DOS, and bundle it with outdated software (original disks and manuals only, please). Wherever you donate it, your PC will find a new lease on life, and you'll be doing some good both for the earth and for your soul.