Wednesday, January 14, 2009


How You Can Really Clean Up
Tuesday, January 13, 2009 10:59 AM
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(Source: Independent, The; London (UK))trackingBy Michael McCarthy

We think of hi-tech industries as being eco-friendly. But, says Michael McCarthy, some are a great deal friendlier than others. It's all a question of being aware of your ecological footprint

The smokestacks may have been demolished, the rivers may no longer run bright orange and the grim factories may have morphed into bright air-conditioned offices. But the environmental problems produced by business have not disappeared. While clean, streamlined modern technology could hold many of the keys to sustainability in the future (see Hamish McRae, page II), it can be bad for the planet too, just as old industry was, with its pipes spouting goo and its chimneys belching filth.

Two aspects, in particular, of a business world now largely based on electronics are giving increasing cause for green concern: energy use and electronic waste.

The first has quietly crept up on us. Twenty years ago, when the desktop PC was beginning to replace the typewriter, no one dreamed that there might be a global problem stemming from the dangly bit on the end of it - the plug. But in those two decades, the issue of climate change has developed from a scientific curiosity into one of the most critical problems facing the earth; and the warming of the global climate is being caused by atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases; and those emissions are coming largely from power stations which generate electricity - and it is that electricity which powers your PC.

A simple chain. The link is direct, but it is the colossal, worldwide scale of information and communications technology (ICT) use, and its mushrooming, seemingly unstoppable growth, which makes it so important. It has been estimated that electronics now account for 2 per cent of global carbon emissions, and this is about the same as aviation, whose emissions have become highly controversial and are regarded by many environmentalists as a critical problem. But ICT's emissions are right up there, and growing rapidly, just like aviation's, even if they are not yet the subject of demonstrations by green activists.

However, the fact that the Government has recently adopted a tough law - the Climate Change bill - to force through cuts in Britain's national emissions of no less than 80 per cent by 2050 means that doing nothing is not an option, and individual companies will increasingly have to minimise their "carbon footprint". When you realise that for some firms, especially those involved in commerce rather than manufacturing, fully 40 per cent of that carbon footprint can be accounted for by ICT alone, you start to see the size of the problem.

The other major potential impact on the environment of a hi- tech, electronically-run business comes from its hardware - when its natural life is finished. Let us remember how short that life is. How many business machines, from desktops and laptops to faxes, copiers and printers, last for five years? Such is the speed of technological change and improvement that the answer is, very few - and there is a constant, unending stream of what has become known as e-waste, which has to be disposed of.

The UN estimates that some 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are already being generated worldwide each year, comprising more than 5 per cent of all solid municipal waste, and this total is predicted to shoot up. Yet the ultimate fate of much of it is unknown. Greenpeace refers to it as the "hidden flow", and in a detailed report on e-waste earlier this year spelled out how much obsolete electronic hardware is exported, often illegally, either for dumping in Africa, or for rudimentary recovery by Asian informal recyclers. "There, workers at scrapyards - some of whom are children - are exposed to a cocktail of toxic chemicals when the products are broken apart, and as water, air and soil are polluted", the Greenpeace report said.

We don't really think of all this, do we, walking from our desks to the coffee machine? But the impact on the planet of modern office technology is real, even if it is to some extent out of sight and out of mind. (In fact, some downsides of hi-tech business are even more invisible, such as the way that in a global economy, long-haul air journeys, with the substantial carbon emissions that they involve, have become much more frequent.)

So what can businesses do? The Government, to give it some credit, is trying to set an example, and in July 2008 it announced plans - which it said were the first of its kind in the world - to slash the carbon footprint of its computer systems. Disclosing that ICT was responsible for up to 20 per cent of carbon emissions generated by Government offices - around 460,000 tons a year - ministers pledged to make energy consumption of ICT carbon neutral within four years, by reducing as much as possible, and offsetting the remainder. On the issue of e-waste, strict Brussels regulations are coming in (after a long delay) which give producers and retailers of electronic equipment the duty of helping towards its disposal; firms must now keep an audit of their purchase and disposal of hardware.

But businesses can do a lot on their own initiative. The issue of green computing is just taking off - it was the subject of a four- part series in What PC? magazine last summer - and data managers and executives are starting to get their heads around it. But it is by no means a headlong rush. To this end, the British Computer Society (BCS), the industry professional body, and in particular, its Carbon Footprint Working Group, have been talking about guidance for small businesses who cannot afford the luxury of in-house environmental IT specialists; and one of the group's leading members, Professor Margaret Ross, professor of software quality at Southampton Solent University, has drafted a short guide entitled Greening Your Work IT Space, which has just become available on the BCS website.

It is full of thought-provoking advice, and also some striking facts (courtesy of the Carbon Trust) which may give pause for thought.

Did you know, for example, that a computer left on 24/7 will cost about 37 a year, but by switching it off at night and weekends, the charge can be reduced to about 10 a year? Or that a PC monitor switched off overnight saves enough energy to microwave six dinners? Or that turning off all non-essential equipment in an office for one night will save enough energy to run a small car for 100 miles? Or that monitors alone account for two-thirds of a computer's energy use?

Many of the recommended steps are simple; it's just a question of shifting thinking in an environmental direction. "You can do most of them at zero cost," Professor Ross said. "They will save CO2, they will save waste, and they will also save money." In collaboration with Professor Ross, we offer here eight ways in which you can make your business more sustainable (see box, left).

Easy ways to reduce your ecological footprint

1. Think about the potential environmental impact of all aspects of your business. Surprisingly often, people don't think. They don't even think about thinking. Think, and then take action to green the company.

2. Carry out an intensive programme of staff awareness. Make your people think green too, and make them realise just how much energy can be used up (and carbon emissions generated) by seemingly trivial actions, such as leaving a PC monitor switched on overnight. Set up a staff green group.

3. Establish a senior manager as the firm's "green champion", someone who will be responsible for the greening process, and drive it within the business.

4. Assess your own technologies and staff behaviours. Work out what machine consumes what. Work out who uses it, and how, and when.

5. Act to reduce consumption. Turn it down or switch it off: lights, heating, electronics. Consume less with what you have, for example, remove active screensavers - they use as much power as the monitor does. Give PC users half a day every three months with the specific aim of removing unwanted files from their local or network hard drives.

6. Take less from the environment. Use recycled paper and recycled print cartridges. Share printing. Use double-sided printing. Refrain from printing.

7. Green your procurement policy. Upgrade rather than purchase new equipment. When you do dispose of it, consider carefully how. Keep detailed records of purchase and disposal of your electronic goods.

8. Use your IT to reduce carbon from other services or activities. Use video and teleconferencing services to save travel.

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