In the United States alone, roughly 400 million consumer electronics products are discarded each year and make up 40 percent of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury, and cadmium, in landfills. Computers represent about one-fourth of that total. Many devices are discarded without proper recycling protocols, leading to further environmental damage.
Academic institutions have an opportunity to impact our planet, as 8.6 million personal computing devices shipped to K-12 schools in the second quarter of 2015 alone. As desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets, readers, and other computing and content delivery devices increase in classrooms, educators should consider how to minimize negative environmental impacts, including the growing electronic waste, or e-waste, problem.
E-waste is the term for discarded electronic products. Typically, expensive products are thrown away only when they’ve been broken or become obsolete. However, as technology advances more and more quickly, devices are increasingly discarded long before they’re actually worn out.
The growing list of low-cost, standalone and netbook devices means the volume of e-waste may increase due to shorter product lifecycles. But not all devices are created equal. Chromebooks, for instance, which are beginning to dominate classrooms, vary greatly in quality and durability. The total cost of ownership (TCO) should factor in the cost to our planet. Low-end, nearly disposable devices will certainly end up in a landfill more often, and sooner, than better-designed units.
In addition, the flexibility of a device can be a big determinant of its useful lifespan. Two-in-one computers, for example, can “future-proof” the purchasing decision. These hybrids offer the interactive tablet features sought after by the “touch generation” combined with full-version software, larger screens, physical keyboards and port features associated with the productivity and durability of a laptop. Two-in-one tablet PCs also have lower levels of hazardous waste, resource depletion, and heavy metals than traditional computers. These factors should be kept in mind when keeping an eye toward reducing e-waste.
When looking to buy computers for schools, there are two important areas to investigate: typical energy consumption (TEC) and EPEAT guidelines.
The Environmental Protection Agency has strengthened the requirements for computers earning the ENERGY STAR® in Version 6.0. For desktops, integrated desktops, thin clients and notebook computers to secure this designation, products must meet stringent TEC requirements for estimated annual energy consumption. Energy use guidelines cover three operating modes—standby, sleep, and running—with systems entering sleep mode within 30 minutes of inactivity. You probably won’t notice much difference in the operation of your computer, but your electricity bill might go down a bit.
Review the ENERGY STAR buying guide or look for the ENERGY STAR label on qualified computers. Prices won’t increase because of the new standard, according to a representative for the ENERGY STAR program. However, if all computers sold in the United States were ENERGY STAR certified, more than $1 billion could be saved in annual energy costs.
Another standard is EPEAT, which offers guidelines on what materials can be used in a computer. Computers are rated Bronze, Silver, or Gold, depending on how well each meets the criteria. Lenovo has 256 products rated EPEAT Gold, Silver and Bronze in the U.S. market alone. A list of EPEAT-compliant systems can be found at www.epeat.net.
Consider repurposing old devices rather than trashing them. The Kramden Institute, which collects, refurbishes and awards computers to needy families, recycled more than 190,000 pounds of e-waste in 2015 alone. Kramden has recognized Lenovo’s Students@Work program, through which we educate students and refurbish computers. Recently, 120 area students joined together with 120 Lenovo employees to tour Lenovo and refurbish 150 computers.
Partnerships can make your school an e-waste safe haven. Schools like the Irvine Unified School District in California have teamed up with All Green, a collector and a recycler of e-waste, to host on-site collection days for “anything with a plug and a circuit.” All Green will pick up old electronics and ensure that all of the material is processed down to the basic commodities for reuse.
If hosting a collection day event is not an option, be sure to partner with a manufacturer like Lenovo, which collects tens of millions of pounds of e-waste from around the world each year.
Educational institutions have an opportunity to impact the e-waste problem, so think green when buying new computers. Consider the TCO and the materials used to make the device. Programs like ENERGY STAR and EPEAT provide useful guidelines for making these decisions. Additionally, look into e-waste recycling programs before discarding your old devices.
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