Over one million PCs are thrown away every year in the UK, with organisations and businesses are the worst culprits. In the capital alone, companies are disposing of more than 50,000 PCs annually, accounting for 5% of all PCs thrown away every year (PC Week, October 1996).
So how about recycling them? The build-up of waste, it seems, is not being taken seriously enough. Roland Clift, professor of environmental technology at the University of Surrey, told PC Week: "I think we are all aware that humanity has got itself into habits of profligacy. We emit too much into our air, water and seas. We produce too much solid waste." In addition to representing a waste of resources, all the effluents and residues can be harmful because they are toxic - to humans or to ecosystems - or because they damage the climate or the land on which human beings need to grow food.
It is not necessary to be a member of an environmental organisation to recognise these problems. People just need to be sentient beings. Clift warns: "Any person or organisation who doesn't recognise that we must change our habits is just playing poker on the Titanic. We have to change our ways."
Industries and business practices of the future simply cannot be akin to those the human race has become accustomed to. The amount of waste that is being created by individuals, industries and other organisations will eventually outrun the capacity of planet Earth to hold it. Clearly, things have to change.
In recent years, "environmental friendliness" has begun to take an increasingly important place in consumers' minds. This is as true for the PC as it is for other consumer products.
A great deal of expensive technological work goes into making a PC, so people would be foolish to chuck it all away. It's not so much the waste which the machine itself represents. It's more a question of thinking about all the waste and emissions produced in the different stages of its manufacture. According to Clift, up to as much as 40 times the mass of the machine itself.
He believes that only 10% of all PCs already bought have been thrown away. Presumably, the remainder never get re-used and simply stand, gathering dust, as monuments to latter-day 20th century life. "It's known as the 'Amstrad in the attic syndrome'," says Clift. No-one in their right mind really wants to run an old, second-hand personal computer. It is not exactly a classic car. Owners of such machines do not polish aged, beige cases or glide proud fingers over worn-out keyboards.
As always, there is a cost involved in recycling. According to research from the Gartner Group, it costs an organisation around $600 (u375) to dispose of a single PC. Simply put, the UK is literally throwing u375 million straight into the dustbin every year. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. When the recycling laws change these figures will escalate. "The price of disposal is suddenly going to go shooting up," says Clift.
At the moment, there are few organisations specialising in the PC recycling business. One such is Berkshire-based Green Disk, which specialises in recycling floppy disks. Another is The Mann Organisation, which claims to be able to re-use more than 95% of the products and materials that make up such items as PCs, printers and photocopiers.
Some computer manufacturers have taken a lead in being environmentallyaware.
ICL's environmental programme was formally launched in 1993 although action had been taken long before then. ICL was the first IT company in Europe to eliminate ozone-damaging CFCs in the manufacturing process of its printed-circuit boards. In its drive towards environmentally friendly information technology ICL has:
- set up "green teams" at various sites;
- introduced environmental mainframe designs which use fewer materials, consume less power and dissipate less heat;
- created a global network of video conferencing studios to cut out one million passenger kilometres a year.
- established a recycling centre in Cheshire.
Joy Boyce, corporate environmental affairs manager at ICL, says that the company is one of the few organisations to operate its own recycling processes in-house. "There are economic benefits to it as well as green benefits. We have been influenced by our customers. When we receive invitations to tender, there are often pages and pages of environmental questions," she says.
IBM is doing its bit too. One recent development has seen the launch of a computer warehouse in the US, making it possible for customers to buy retooled PCs via the Internet.
The Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER) is currently researching the schemes which already exist, how much equipment is already being collected and recycled and the effectiveness of different approaches.
ICER's plans for the next few months include focusing on some of the issues which are fundamental to finding a solution for equipment at the end of its life - collecting equipment, the role of industry-led initiatives and the need to explore funding options. Graham Marson, ICER chairman, comments: "The Department of Trade & Industry and minister Richard Page have recently reinforced the need for industry to take action. They have also stressed the need for more information on which to base decisions."
The action taken by the PC industry now seems to be based primarily around each company's own philosophy rather than being driven by regulations.
However, this will all change if legislation which the European Parliament is planning to introduce in the near future comes into force.
The legislation under discussion would involve all manufacturers taking responsibility for their products at the end of their natural life. This would be an onerous responsibility for many of the manufacturers, but are they ready for it?
Gill Ransome, compliance manager for Dell Europe, says that although legislation is expected some time soon, the main impetus will not be from a government group, but from industry itself. Dell has begun to implement a recycling system: "We launched a pilot take-back scheme in Germany in November last year. This will eventually be adopted right across Europe," says Ransome. "Our chassis are also 'Blue Angel' certified - this is one of the most stringent recyclable requirements."
She adds that the drive to become "green" is growing rapidly, mainly because of direct influence from Europe: "If you want to sell into Germany or Switzerland you have to have green credentials." Already in the UK, there are some manufacturers who will only deal with "green" people. The key message from the EC is variation on three Rs: reduce, re-use and recycle.
Reduction should occur when designing products. Manufacturers must reduce the materials put into a product in order to comply with regulations in Germany and Switzerland. Re-use means that as far as possible, manufacturers must try to extend the life of their products. Recycle is effectively the reuse of the raw materials.
Despite the argument made by some manufacturers that it costs them more to be green, Ransome says that for Dell, this has not been the case and that planning for recycling during product development is important. "In the long run, it has not cost us more money. If we hadn't planned ahead, it could have done." Ransome says that Dell reduced its costs by working in consultation with its design engineers, planning how to go about making environmentally friendly PCs. "The reason it took some time to implement is that we were concerned not just to talk about these measures. We wanted to have something definite in place before we shouted about it."
An EU directive on packaging was introduced in 1994, with UK draft regulations in effect from last month but so far no legislation on the equipment itself has been introduced. ICL is certain there will be an EU directive in the next four months. It expects the legislation will make manufacturers responsible in some way for the recycling of the equipment they produce. Germany and the Netherlands are already introducing their own legislation. When it becomes law, it will effectively fragment the already troubled EU single market. The recycling laws for the country of manufacture will act as another barrier to free trade. Boyce believes the EU will follow the German and the Dutch initiatives.
When it comes to politics, recycling can be a bit of a wild card. William Knocker, director of marketing services at Compaq, says recycling has been picked up by EU member countries purely for competitive advantage, rather than for the good of the community as a whole.
There has been a lot of talk on the subject of legislation but little action. "A number of countries are doing there own bit towards this - for example, Germany and Switzerland. New laws on recycling are about to be passed in Italy and the Dutch Government is just about to pass a decree. These actions should not be taken to gain competitive edge; it is something that the industry must do together."
In Germany and Switzerland the customer pays a certain industry-agreed charge on top of the cost of the product and one central organisation takes care of the recycling.
"Take-back programmes are definitely the way I see it going," says Knocker.
"The trouble is, the number of people who actually return PCs under this scheme is minute - we have seen this in Compaq in Germany. It's not a lack of education, in Germany in particular because these green issues are highly visible."
Whether the proposed legislation takes four months or four years to come into effect, recycling is not something that the PC makers or any other electronic equipment manufacturer can afford to neglect. The more action they take now the less it will cost them, in terms of money and customers, when the legislation is in place and they have no choice but to conform.
Says Clift: "I don't know what form take-back legislation will take in the UK or Europe - although these things do tend to follow German models - but I'm quite sure that legislation will be a fact within five years.
Better think about it now, and get there first!"
- The Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling can be contacted on: 0171 729 4766.
COSTS: HOW FUJITSU SAVED MONEY BY GOING GREEN
Environmentally friendly products are traditionally associated with higher costs, but Fujitsu claims that this is not always so. For instance, the company has adopted a production process in its factories which consumes less power. Fujitsu also says it has saved a great deal by redesigning its packaging material. The boxes it now uses are smaller, which means less materials costs. As a result, Fujitsu is able to fit more boxes on each pallet during transports. The boxes themselves are made in a self-closing design which obviates the need for glue, tape and staples. The company claims this makes it easier both to manufacture and re-cycle.
Keyboards can be quite difficult and expensive to recycle because of the paint that is used for the characters on the key caps. To overcome this problem, Fujitsu has begun to laser print the characters instead, which, it claims, has several positive side-effects. The company says it no longer has to manufacture keyboards for different countries, but can instead keep blank keyboards in stock. These are then laser printed as demand for them arises.
STANDARDS: THE PROS AND CONS OF PRODUCT APPROVAL
During the last few years we have seen an increasing number of organisations launch their own version of eco-label. There are at least 30 different standards in the world at present. A few of them have been commonly accepted, but some of them are so far only "one-product standards", meaning that only one product is approved. The European Commission is currently trying to work out a European standard for environmentally friendly products.
The obvious reason for all the efforts to produce eco-standards is the vast number of PCs that have to be disposed of every year, to the detriment of the environment. But another, less laudable reason seems to be sheer profit; some of the standardisation organisations have decided to concentrate only on businesses that can afford to pay for an approval. There are a lot of computer companies who want to differentiate their products from those of their competitors - environmental friendliness could be one such differentiator, but it is an expensive one. An approval can cost up to #30,000 per product, per year.
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