Green Up Your Home Computing

How to make your family’s computer usage more sustainable
Top view of workspace. Laptop mobile phone, wallet, headphones, women hat, notebook, pencil
© Can Stock Photo / Wasichus

So, the story goes that computers substantially help reduce dependence on and waste of material items – notably paper. This is often little more than a fairytale, as computing itself can be a voracious consumer of energy and resources. With this in mind, we explored how your family’s home computing habits need to change.

An expert with a “Green Thumb”

Brian Stewart of Athabasca University, an online university in Alberta, says, “The goal of Green IT is to continuously reduce the environmental impact of computing and to effectively use computing to reduce the impact of other activities.” Brian introduced a waste reduction course at AU and has been endeavouring to reduce the environmental impact of the university’s computing infrastructure, the lifeblood of any online institution.

Green IT began way back in the Dark Ages of 1992 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began the ENERGY STAR program which identified devices that met reduced energy usage specifications. But Brian feels that the greatest scope of impact will be achieved through the ways computers can “dematerialize” our lives through such applications as e-books and e-tickets, or reducing travel through video and web conferencing. What? No continental breakfast?

It's not easy being green

Or more to the point, it isn’t straightforward. What should we look for when purchasing a computer to make it as green as possible? Brian warns against purchasing a new computer simply to be “greener”: “If you buy a computer because it is the greenest but that doesn’t meet your needs, you are likely to be very dissatisfied with the purchase and frustrated with the whole green thing.” Unnecessary replacement also contributes to the whole “footprint” problem and will not reduce carbon emissions unless you use your computer more than 16 hours a day (in which case, is your biggest problem really an inadequate computer?). As for brands, because designs change so frequently, he recommends that users research the product through such organizations as The Green Grid or The Green Electronics Council (EPEAT).

Someone to watch over you

EPEAT is an environmental ratings program that "provides independent verification of manufacturers' claims and the EPEAT online registry lists sustainable products from a broader range of manufacturers than any comparable ecolabel."

Get the lead out!

EPEAT rates products on performance criteria from the whole life cycle. They became concerned with the detrimental effects increased computing was having in a number of areas. For instance, a single monitor used to contain as much as 10 lbs of lead. This has been almost completely eliminated and yet most of the heavy metal content in landfills is still attributable to discarded electronic equipment. They also pay significant attention to the presence of power management software, citing the enormous energy, lifespan and cost savings of simply turning computers off or applying automatic power settings. In 2016, the EPA Consumer Messaging Guide for ENERGY STAR Certified Consumer Electronics stated, “If every home office product purchased in the United States this year met ENERGY STAR requirements, consumers would save more than $335 million in annual energy costs and prevent 4 billion pounds of greenhouse gases, equivalent to emissions from 385,000 cars.” A lot of benefit for simply pressing a button.

Old-school green – the three Rs

Brian Stewart harkens back to the maxim “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Most importantly, reduce. Reduce purchases of equipment, energy consumption and replacement. Recycle by approaching companies specializing in the field or purchase from producers who provide options to return used materials to them. And don’t forget to reuse. If you decide to upgrade while your device still functions well, there are plenty of users for whom a computer with modest capabilities is more than sufficient. Consider donating your old, reliable device. Consider my mother, who still thinks a laptop is a portable lunch tray.

Ditch the pitch

Be a judicious consumer: don’t let the salesperson convince you that you need Call of Duty capability when all you do is check out Pinterest for recipe ideas. Look for the Energy Star and EPEAT ratings on laptops, monitors, and store shelf information. Their goal is to continually expand their presence within large manufacturers and retailers in order to facilitate consumers’ growing desire to make better choices.

Did you know?

  • Leaving PCs on 24/7 constitutes as much as 75% of their power consumption and wears them out faster.
  • CO2e means “carbon dioxide equivalent” - the unit of measurement that defines the global warming potential (GWP) of the major greenhouse gases.
  • Fujitsu estimated that a desktop computer had a five-year lifecycle footprint of approximately 700 kg CO2e, half of which was energy usage, the other half manufacture, assembly and shipping – also called “embedded carbon.”
  • In 2008, a course created by Tom Worthington at the Australian National University was the only Green IT course available. Now, a Google search turns up many!
  • 43 countries and 1.12 billion products are registered with EPEAT. Some of the companies include Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung.

Practical advice

  • Mobile computers are more energy efficient than desktops, but desktops are higher performance and longer lasting.
  • You can find the energy saving options in the Power Management menu on your computer.
  • Power down the outlet, not just the device, because the supply continues to draw power even when the electronics are turned off.
  • Don’t use screen savers – use the power settings to turn your screen off instead.
  • Only print what is necessary to have on paper and use remanufactured toner cartridges.

Do your research

  • What are your needs? Does the device meet or unnecessarily exceed them?
  • How long do you intend to keep the device?
  • Is the device upgradable, or repairable?
  • Have you compared it with other brands?
  • Is the device certified with ENERGY STAR or does it bear the EPEAT label?
  • Does the company facilitate environmentally responsible disposal?
  • Does the company have a green or sustainable element to its mission?
  • HPDell and Apple provide information on the carbon footprint of their products or their own Green initiatives.

The ironic reality of an intended “paperless” society is greater consumption of energy and other resources, increased catering to the insatiable “upgrade beast,” whose handlers have convinced us that we must always possess the latest/fastest/sexiest or be left behind in hapless (planned) obsolescence, and creation of a throw-away culture where it is more practical for consumers to replace than repair. If we become a little more conservative and educated in our personal, business, and consumer habits, we can conceivably operate our devices for longer with fewer adverse consequences, a clearer conscience, and possibly a healthier bank account. And maybe I can get Grandma to become cyber-savvy – but do I really want to see her drinking Mojitos on Facebook?

*Originally published March 3, 2013