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Published on February 12th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


What’s in the Future for Green PCs?

Desktop computers, or PCs , are larger and consume much more energy than their smaller, more portable cousin, the laptop. This size differentiation automatically qualifies PCs as the “less green” computing choice.

But don’t toss out your dream of an eco-friendly desktop workstation just yet! There are greener PCs out there that can lessen your environmental impact and spare your body the burden of toxin-laced tech components.

The Sky's the Limit for the Future of Eco-friendly Tech

High energy consumption is not the only reason that PCs are considered not-so-earth-friendly, however. As you seek out a truly green computing machine, consider factors such as PC components, constituent materials, packaging, and the ability to upgrade or recycle an old computer.

Let’s examine the various factors and take a peek at what the future holds for green PC technology…

PC Components

When you’re talking about PCs, you’re not just talking about one piece of equipment. At the very least, the basic PC consists of:

  • a central processing unit (CPU), more commonly known as the tower
  • a monitor
  • external accessories (mouse, speakers, printer unit, etc.)

Because they require so many separate pieces of equipment, desktops contain more material than laptops, especially plastic, which is used for casings and many other parts of the computer.

To minimize the wastefulness of their PCs, several manufacturers are now using recycled plastics in their tower and monitor casings. Another recent trend is the development of bioplastics (plastics derived from plants rather than petroleum), which means less toxins and a more sustainable source of plastic. HP, for instance, has been toying with a bio-degradable corn-based plastic case for its printers since 2004, but the material has yet to catch on for green PC manufacturing.

The Green Electronics Council established the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT)—a registry for green consumer electronics—to help environmentally conscious consumers make informed decisions. EPEAT’s highest rating is given to products that contain at least 25% postconsumer recycled plastic, renewable plastics, or bioplastics.

At least two companies, Enano and Zonbu, have made desktop computers that are a fraction of the size of the average PC, which means that a significantly less materials go into its construction. As they boast at least decent computing power, a smaller PC like the Enano or Zonbu could be the way to go if you aren’t looking for something like a high-powered gaming machine.

Wood Works

Some companies are getting a bit more creative by fashioning their tower and monitor casings, as well as various peripheral items, from wood. Proponents claim that wood is the most renewable material out there, but others are raising legitimate questions about whether or not wood is the best alternative, since computers get hot and wood burns. Still, some companies are pushing full-steam ahead:

  • Swedish company Swedx and German company Holz Kontor are ready and willing to take your order for a wood-encased desktop computer tower, monitor, or mouse
  • Taiwanese company Asustek Computer, Inc. has been doing the same with bamboo, which—because it is technically a grass and therefore grows much more quickly than trees—could be the greener alternative.

Of course, the packaging your PC is shipped in makes an impact on the environment as well. Finding sustainable packaging solutions is not currently a top priority on the list of many corporations, though HP has been packaging its printers in more recycled plastics and recycled content paper board. The company also packages its ink and toner cartridges in air cushioning rather than molded end caps, as air cushioning can later be reused when used cartridges are sent back to HP for recycling.

Greener Constituents

It’s not just the desktop’s outside that makes it hazardous to the environment: The constituents of a computer’s “guts” are often the most toxic and environmentally harmful PC parts.

Here are just a few of the toxic chemicals found in your average desktop:

  • Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in plastic casings
  • Cadmium and selenium in circuit boards
  • Cathode ray tubes (CRT) in monitors
  • Lead in solder
  • Mercury in LCD screen backlights

Due to new research and growing public awareness about the effects of these hazardous materials, many companies are finding ways to build green PCs that do not make use of these dangerous chemicals. As far back as 2002, NEC’s PowerMate Eco used a lead-free solder, came packaged in a fully-recyclable case, and used no toxic flame retardants.

In 2003, the European Union adopted the Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, which restricts the use of many of the primary hazardous materials used in electronics manufacturing. This directive is pushing many major desktop computer manufacturers to search for new ways to build their machines. Apple and Dell, for instance, have pledged to eliminate all toxic flame retardants from their products by 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Most companies have eliminated CRT monitors from their catalogs altogether, since they emit toxic radiation and can contain many toxic phosphors. LCD screens are currently the new industry standard for desktop computers, but even these contain toxic materials.

It looks like the LCD monitor’s days may be numbered: As the more energy efficient and toxin-free OLED technology becomes more advanced and more cost effective to manufacture, LCD screens may eventually occupy the dustbin along with our old CRTs.

Energy Efficiency

The average PC consumes anywhere from 150–250 watts of power simply during the process of computing. Following the lead from laptops, most PCs now include power-management software. Going into a sleep mode during periods of non-usage is a huge power-saver for PCs, but the average desktop computer still consumes between 5–10 Watts of power even while idling.

The Intel Core 2 Duo processors are a big step towards addressing this problem, as they only draw power for those parts of the chip that are actually in use. The Core 2 Duo is a relatively standard feature in desktop PCs today. Most of the major PC manufacturers—such as Apple, Dell, Gateway, and HP—incorporate these processors to make their machines more energy efficient. Many of the machines using the Core 2 Duo processor have achieved Silver and Gold ratings from EPEAT.

There are new power-saving chip technologies in the works, too. A company called Marvell has developed a processor chip that uses power factor correction (PFC) to determine the amount of power any given application will require and then optimize its power usage for maximum efficiency. Marvell’s chip will be deployed to the market in 2008.

Energy Star
, of course, is your best bet for finding a PC that doesn’t gobble gluttonous amounts of energy. The new Energy Star 4.0 specifications include the 80 PLUS standard. 80 PLUS is an incentive program for motivating PC manufacturers to start using power supplies that convert at least 80 percent of the electricity drawn from the wall outlet into actual computing power for the machine. In the past, many power supplies only used about 50 to 70% of the electricity they drew. Needless to say, any PC that meets the Energy Star 4.0 criteria is much more energy efficient than its predecessors.

Tech Recycling

In this era of rapidly paced computer technology development, a desktop computer can be considered “obsolete” in no time. When these machines are sent to landfills, the toxic materials used in their construction present a serious hazard.

Some estimates show that electronics make up nearly three-fourths of all hazardous waste! Recycling desktop computers could have a huge impact on the way we’re treating the earth.

The simplest way to recycle a computer, of course, is to upgrade it and continue using it or donate it to a school or charity. Most major PC manufacturers don’t make their machines readily upgradeable, however, as they’d prefer you shell out for a whole new system rather than buy relatively inexpensive components for an upgrade.

This hasn’t stopped some people, such as French organizations Communautique, Héberjeune, and the Parc-Extension Éco-quartier, from creating a community project that teaches young people how to disassemble and rebuild computers. The participants may not be building top of the line PCs, but they come out of the program with valuable skills and a machine that lets them surf the web, check email, and perform other basic computing tasks. Many small computer repair and refurbishment shops are also on the forefront of the computer recycling movement.

While they aren’t keen on making it easy for you to upgrade, major computer manufacturers are starting to see the value in recycling their computers—most of them now have free take-back programs. This not only cuts down on hazardous waste—it cuts back on manufacturing costs:

  • various parts of the dismantled computers can be refurbished and reused
  • the plastics can be recycled
  • the hazardous materials can be disposed of properly

The savings factor is prompting many manufacturers to start designing their computers with recycling in mind—after all, the more parts they can reuse, the less they have to spend on raw materials.

The Future of Green PCs

Perhaps in the future, desktop computer manufacturers will be able to reuse or recycle every single part of their computers, leaving absolutely zero waste… but that’s a long way off. In the meantime, smaller computers, like Enano and Zonbu, might just catch on as the best way to minimize the waste we produce in the pursuit of ever-more-powerful computing machines.

There are bolder ideas out there, too. One of the most interesting is the notion that keystrokes, mouse movements, and the light from your monitor could eventually produce all the power a computer needs to operate.

Less radical ideas include the networking of several old computers into one processing unit that can be accessed by a number of smaller devices. A company called NComputing is working on just such an arrangement for schools: One computer hosts all of the memory and processing capability, and up to 30 students can connect to the host computer via a small device that consumes far less energy than a desktop computer (or even a laptop).

Smaller devices with no processing power of their own are called “thin clients.” Sun Microsystems is a big proponent of the thin client system, which has some basic user interface programs (email, chat, word processing, etc.) and a very fast Internet connection for communicating with a central processing server. Sun Microsystems is a big proponent of the thin client system. Which is to say: Perhaps the desktop computer of tomorrow won’t be a computer at all.

But in case the personal computer doesn’t go out of style, many companies are experimenting with new manufacturing methods. Because we do not actually see it, most of us are unaware that the manufacturing process is a very energy-intensive part of a computer’s lifecycle.

In 2004, Texas Instruments designed a greener circuit board fabrication plant that saved them so much money in water, power, and other construction costs that it was more cost effective than outsourcing the project overseas, where the price of labor is much lower than in the U.S. If this kind of thinking is applied to every step of the desktop computer manufacturing process, coupled with a no-waste recycling program, we will make huge strides towards a future of sustainable technologies and completely green PCs.

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