The realities of green computing

More and more lately, IT vendors trumpet their electronic-waste recycling and "takeback" programmes, where manufacturers accept responsibility for the full lifecycle of goods they produce.

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Better yet, we're told, is the rapid trend toward "green computing," with electronics being produced using fewer toxic substances and materials that cannot be recycled.

Environmental watchdog groups and academics pour out reports at an equally fierce clip regarding the global "ewaste crisis," some with horrifying accounts, complete with photos, of how electronics of all sorts from the US are dumped in China, India and Africa for "recycling".

Some Chinese villages have become ewaste dumping centres, where workers use hammers to beat mounds of discarded monitors and PCs into chunks that spew toxins into the air and their lungs.

Leading to the question of how much is really being accomplished given the enormity of the problem, which was widely unheard of for decades, and given that electronics makers aren't inclined to curb sales for the sake of the environment. However good their green initiatives are, there are still more PCs, monitors, cell phones, TVs and other electronics sold every year that have to be disposed of at some point, no matter what they're made of.

"One thing we need to be able to do is to separate the reality from the hype," says IT analyst Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates. On one hand, companies that are out in front with environmental protection programs ought to let that message be known, and be lauded for their efforts, but on the other hand "they may be seen as opportunistic". So they ask analysts like Kay how to handle the marketing spiel. "It's not completely obvious what the right way to do it is."

The magnitude of ewaste is partly responsible for that. The Computer TakeBack Campaign, based in San Jose, California, uses US Environmental Protection Agency figures to illustrate the need for everyone in the chain - manufacturers to consumers, be they businesses or individuals - to take responsibility. In the US alone, 2.63 million tons of ewaste were generated in 2005, with more than 87% of that winding up in landfills or incinerators. Of the mere 330,000 tons that were "recovered" for recycling, some percentage estimated to be between 50 percent and 80 percent was shipped outside of the US after being disposed of, the campaign says on its website.

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