Technology that's green from the roots up

Vendors start to design IT with Mother Earth in mind.

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Despite such mediocre marks, the industry has made strides to do better by the environment.

Casey Harrell, a toxics activist at Greenpeace, says many manufacturers have made their product lines more environmentally friendly in just the past few years.

"We have significantly greener mobile phones, laptops and PDAs than we had three or four years ago," he says. He credits such successes to technology advances, the development of alternative materials, legislative requirements and customer demands.

"Almost all [the manufacturers] are doing design for the environment to some extent, but there are companies that are certainly more progressive than others," says Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

Fujitsu Computer Systems Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif., is working on several fronts toward its goal of developing greener products.

One initiative is the four-year-old Super Green Products program, says Richard McCormack, the company's senior vice president of marketing. Products earn the Super Green designation if they're best in class in several areas: They must use less energy, avoid hazardous substances and incorporate the three R's -- reduce, reuse, recycle -- in their design and technology.

McCormack cites Fujitsu's Primergy TX120 server as an example. The server takes less space, consumes less energy, and produces less heat and noise than standard servers, yet it has the same memory and storage capacity as bigger models. It's also designed for easy disassembly and separation of materials that can then be reused in other products, he says. (The trade-off is that it has fewer optional components and more fixed ones, notes McCormack.)

Fujitsu has also developed biodegradable plastics that have less of an environmental impact than traditional plastics, which are harder to reuse than other components of electronic goods, McCormack says. The company has used biodegradables in certain notebook PCs since 2002. And in 2006, it developed a flexible bio-plastic using castor oil; that material is now used in PCs and cell phones.

Toxic Out; Green In

Fujitsu's push for products that are environmentally sound from inception through disposal exemplifies the growing design-for-environment trend.

Harrell says he sees manufacturers phasing out a number of toxic chemicals, including lead, mercury and cadmium. Some are working to replace other toxins, such as PVC and BFR, with materials that so far have proved to be less dangerous.

However, he and others still see room for improvement.

A February 2008 Greenpeace report (download PDF) says the fate of up to 80% of e-waste in the U.S. is unknown, because much of it is still sent to landfills and incinerators or illegally exported for dumping in Africa or rudimentary recycling in Asia.

Harrell says manufacturers need to do more, too. For instance, Nintendo of America Inc. in Redmond, Wash., ranked at the very bottom of Greenpeace's electronics guide. Nintendo did not respond to requests for comment.

To be fair, Nintendo isn't the only company Greenpeace cited in a May report called "Playing Dirty" (download PDF), which examined the use of hazardous chemicals and materials in gaming console components. Greenpeace looked at Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 Elite, the 40GB Sony PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii. It didn't detect cadmium or mercury in any of those game systems' components, but it found lead and chromium at relatively low concentrations in some samples and PVC in a number of flexible materials (wire and cable coatings) in all of the consoles.

Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony have committed to making greener products. According to the Greenpeace report, Microsoft said it would stop using PVC and BFR in its hardware by 2010, Nintendo said it would eliminate PVC in its products but has not committed to a date, and Sony said it would phase out PVC and certain uses of BFR in its mobile products by 2010.

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