Technology that's green from the roots up

Vendors start to design IT with Mother Earth in mind.

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

HP saw potential in used water bottles. Hewlett-Packard Co. found a way to turn those old bottles, along with other types of recyclable consumer plastics, into ink-jet printer cartridges.

In fact, HP turned more than 5 million pounds of recycled plastic into ink-jet cartridges in 2007 and plans to use twice as much this year.

The project, part of HP's Design for Environment program, is just one way for the company to meet its green objectives, says Pat Tiernan, vice president for social and environmental responsibility.

"More and more people are really thinking about the environment in ways they hadn't before," he says.

HP isn't the only technology company gambling on green. Many manufacturers are now giving heightened consideration to how their products affect the environment. As a result, they're building more products that require fewer resources to make and less power to run, contain less toxic material, and are a snap to refurbish or recycle.

"The vendors are paying a tremendous amount of attention to this," says Christopher Mines, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "The industry has made great strides, and certainly there are companies that take design for the environment to heart."

Tiernan points to the initiatives at HP to illustrate the point.

The company has a commitment to eliminating toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardant (BFR) from all of its products by the end of 2009. It has switched from solvent-based paints to more environmentally friendly water-based types for its workstations and TVs. And 20 months ago, it started to eliminate metals, many of which are neurotoxins, from its consumer desktops, removing enough so far to be able to construct the Eiffel Tower.

HP also incorporates power management technology into its printers, something it has done since the 1990s with its Instant-on Technology, which shortens the time a printer takes to wake up from sleep mode, using up to 50% less energy than traditional technologies. And this year, it released HP Web Jetadmin, which is designed to allow IT workers to remotely schedule sleep/wake-up cycles and automatically turn off devices at night and on weekends.

The impact of those types of innovations can be significant: Over the past decade or so, HP's technologies have yielded energy savings that are about the same as the savings that would be generated by removing 1.1 million cars from the road for one year.

Tiernan acknowledges that some of HP's greener products have premium prices, but apparently companies are willing to pay them. He says customers often include questions about HP's environmental policies on their requests for proposals. In fact, the number of customers asking about green initiatives has grown by more than 150% in the past two years.

Report Cards

Customers aren't the only ones taking notes. Greenpeace International has taken on this issue in its quarterly "Guide to Greener Electronics" report (download PDF), which ranks consumer electronics companies based on their efforts to reduce toxins in their products, and on their programs for taking back and recycling products.

The June 2008 report for the first time considered the manufacturers' efforts to increase their products' energy efficiency. That report, issued June 25, lists Sony Ericsson and Sony Corp. as leaders among the 18 companies ranked. However, the report gave those two a score of just over 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. The majority of the ranked companies fell between 4 and 5.

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