Evolve or Perish

June 1st, 2009 Desktop, Tech, Tech Features

While the economic crisis hogs headlines, we shouldn’t forget the other bad news that needs attention. Drew Turney looks at where to look for planet-friendly changes.

It’s a dangerous time for the green movement. It’s still an urgent matter as the extreme conditions that led to the Victorian bushfires showed us, but the economy tanks, industries tend to shed narratives about social culture that aren’t about the bottom line. With everyone terrified about job losses and plummeting share markets, the wide scale adoption of green principles we’ve seen over the last few years might be as forgotten as last season’s fashion.

So while one multinational after another tips over the brink, taking their green washing with them, it might be up to the millions of small companies and individuals like us, making our own industry as clean and responsible as we can.

Where do we start? It’s easier than it looks — just cast a critical eye over every step in the typical workflow. Or just read on — Desktop’s done the hard work for you and we’ll be looking at the tools and methods you use every day, how to improve them and suggesting alternatives to consider.

The view from here

Let’s start with the screen you spend most of your time looking at. If you’ve joined the LCD revolution, the first thing you would have noticed (apart from not getting a hernia carrying the box) was the comparatively smaller packaging. They emit less heat and use less power, but before you even plug it in you’ve made a difference.

Asking which one lasts longer before you have to replace it is like asking about the length of a piece of string. Some users report that they’re still on the same CRT monitor after years, but if you’re in graphics work where colour is important (see May Desktop for our colour management feature), the electron guns lose strengths after about two years and you’ll start to see false colour. But that doesn’t mean it’s no contest — some LCD/LED screens have dead pixels straight out of the box.

Which leaves the final resting place. Neither are good for the Earth and disposing of them in domestic rubbish is outlawed in many parts of the world. A CRT monitor contains four to five pounds of lead – up to almost 30 percent of its weight, and the liquid crystal that gives LCD its name leaching into the ground is a major new concern for environmentalists, with sales of LCD TVs alone more than doubling between 2005 and this year (from 40 to 100 million worldwide).

The Toriba 18.5 inch monitor has a 16:9 aspect ratio, giving you lots of elbow room for applications and palettes, so it’s tailor-made for high definition movies and video, with no distortion or black bars. It’s also the recipient of a silver award and Energy Star certificates from Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), the assessment system for electronic products according to the international standard for environmental performance (IEEE 1680- 2006).

Dells’ 22 and 24-inch monitors take a three pronged approach. First, they employ several power saving techniques like low power consumption in sleep mode and built in ambient light sensor that adjusts the settings to suit your surroundings. The series also does away with PVC, arsenic, mercury and other nasty chemicals most computer components are made from, and lastly not only the packaging but some of the products themselves are made from recycled materials.

Samsung’s P2370 reduces power consumption by reducing the number of backlights and using two thirds of the power of comparable competitors.

In the box

If you’re in design it’s a good bet you’re using a Mac, and Apple have long crowed about their green credentials. One recent initiative has been to report on the carbon emissions produced from each Apple device. The company also made a 2008 commitment to remove the toxic chemicals from their devices, moving to light-emitting diode (LED) displays to phase out arsenic and mercury and removing PVC and brominated flame retardants from CPUs.

But keep the term ‘green washing’ in mind – in mid 2007 Greenpeace rated Apple the worst of 14 contenders based on use of toxic chemicals and commitment to recycling obsolete products. And if you believe some, things haven’t improved, Australian Personal Computer online reporting in February this year that workers in a Sydney warehouse had been set to work destroying palettes full of Apple equipment that was apparently in good working order with hammers and screwdrivers for disposal in a factory skip.

Anyone with basic IT knowledge will tell you computers draw very little power compared to machinery with motors or heating elements like toasters or clothes dryers. So for as the PC has existed it’s had defenders who say leaving it on overnight makes little difference as it draws so little juice. But if all one billion computers in use in the world (according to Gartner research in June 2008) are left on overnight, that’s quite a bit of fossil fuel-based electricity. Without having to spend a cent on cool green devices or buying carbon offsets you can make a big difference simply by turning your computer off or putting it to sleep at the day’s end.

As to where a computer ends up, you might think it doesn’t matter so much. Surely it’s just a little box of plastic and metal? Actually the chemicals to be found inside read like a checklist for a chemical weapons plant and can include lead, mercury, hexavalent chrome, cadmium, polyvinyl chloride and flame retardants like polybrominated biphenyls, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, hexabromocyclododecane or tetrabromobisphenol A.

None of it is stuff we want seeping into our topsoil or waterways in the volumes that can result from the staggering number of old PCs we throw away. The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts website says there are 9 million computers in Australia. The Eastern Metropolitan Regional Council (EMRC) is a Perth-based local government body that contains six councils. It’s received 26.2 tons of e-waste since it started collecting it in June last year, and they report it’s growing 3-5 percent faster than general waste.

So where should a PC’s final resting place be when you upgrade? Dismantle it yourself and throw it in your wheelie bin and it’ll end up in landfill or on a huge pile of garbage slowly leaking toxins into the Earth. Taking it to the tip for recycling or to a council e-waste drive is better for the planet, but ultimately most old technology ends up in the developed world where cheap labour makes it cost effective to strip it down for the resalable value in its parts, and not all countries have the environmental protection laws we enjoy. Like every other environmental conundrum, everything we forge out of the Earth has to end up somewhere when we’ve finished with it.

At least don’t forget to protect yourself — don’t just empty the trash before you donate or recycle a compute, but reformat the hard drive completely.

Dell has taken a lead in PC recycling. Buy a Dell PC and when it’s delivered they’ll take your old one away and recycle it, mostly through various industrial breakdown methods that then pass the remains down the line to plastics, metal, battery and glass recyclers. The company also holds one of the better-known programs of recycling days around the country.

A new series of high-end workstations built for industries like design, CAD and film editing, the HP Z series takes leaps ahead in power management at the chip level. Depending on the workload, the processor cores can cycle their power intake up and down, meaning it will draw much less power when idle than a comparable PC but give you the boost you need it when crunching serious data.

In notebooks, you might want to look at the Toshiba Portégé R600, which won first place in Greenpeace’s Green Electronics Survey 2008, which evaluates electronics for doing away with nasty poisons.

Of course, there’s an even greener solution to disposing of a computer responsibly, and that’s not using one. Everything you do on a computer is virtual and imagined — mere arrangements of ones and zeroes – why not the computer itself?

Virtualisation and cloud computing aren’t nearly mature enough to be deployed for high end graphics work, but it might surprise you to learn the technology exists to have an entire desktop complete with applications and a virtual hard disk that you access through a browser.

It’s also not just for geeks any more. What’s claimed to be the world’s largest virtualisation kicked off recently in Brazil, with 356,800 green workstations deployed to schools. According to the press release, the ability to turn one computer into ten virtual workstations has saved the Brazilian government 60 percent in up-front costs and 80 percent in annual power savings, projected to save over 170,000 tons of CO2 emissions.

From scan to print

Has paper use decreased or increased because of the Internet? It’d be one of the most interesting and comprehensive studies on human behaviour ever undertaken if done on a wide enough scale. We certainly don’t produce any less paper than we ever did. As the population increases, so does our paper-based communications and information culture. With the paperless office a ridiculous pipe dream, and despite the continued growth of electronic media we’re as attached to paper as ever.

While that might sound like dire environmental news, in 2008 Desktop was assured by the Australasian Paper Industry Association that almost half the paper manufactured in Australia comes from recycled sources, with a further quarter coming from plantation or farmed timber and the rest coming from regrown forest or sawmill residue. Unfortunately it’s not the same picture everywhere, where less enlightened governments or greedy corporations log virgin forest mercilessly for agriculture or paper pulp.

In a world where swathes of forest are thrown away on newsprint every day, little you can do at your desk will make an impact, but every little bit (from printing on both sides of the paper to buying a e-book reader to read important documents rather than print them out) helps.

Kodak have an interesting product called the ESP 5, a basic print/scan/copy device with the print heads and smart chip built into the printer instead of each new cartridge. As you’re only buying the ink instead of replacing the whole array again, they cost about half as much. While that shouldn’t prompt you to print twice as much, it means the spent cartridges contain less toxins when they finally get where they’re going.

Fuji Xerox also say they’re the first in Australia to bring us a solid ink colour laser printer, the Phaser 8560. The soy-based ink technology works by impacting a simple block of wax onto the paper rather than heating toner from a plastic cartridge. The company claims 100,000 prints from a traditional printer results in 70 kilograms of waste while solid ink yields only two.

And top marks go to Lexmark, who include a couple of reply paid packets with every purchase for you to send your first spent cartridges off for recycling.

The network is the computer

At first glance communication would seem to have little to do with environmentalism, but there’s the old disposal problem. By one estimate there are 3.3 billion mobiles in the world, 950 million sold in 2008 alone. That’s one mobile for every two human beings alive, and the numbers in the third world are as high — in many cases much higher — than they are in industrialised countries like Australia.

What’s more, phone obsolescence has an added twist. They’re objects of style as well as function, so despite the number of handsets out there still perfectly capable of making calls, the pressure to have one with all the latest tricks has more in common with fashion rather than technology marketing. That means we’ll have even more mobile devices to dispose of over time.

Where we can make a difference is at development and manufacture stage. The Nokia 3110 Evolve is a fairly standard looking device, but 50 percent of its covers are from renewable sources and the company says 80 percent can be recycled back into raw materials. The packaging is up to 60 percent recycled and it comes with the AC-8 charger, which uses 10 percent of the standby power if you forget to unplug it.

Otherwise, you can make the ultimate environmental statement by using a solar powered mobile. In February this year LG announced their eco-friendly mobile phone, which looks and behaves like any other handset but whose back plate is made up of solar panels that power the device.

Of course, as the economy collapses and air travel remains one of the most pollution-intensive industries we have, communication by technological means will become even more critical in a globalised world. Even more load is going to be piled on our telecoms networks, which makes low-bandwidth options like Skype more attractive. With a Customer Service Guarantee (supported by the Telecommunication Industry Ombudsman), most reputable providers can offer you a very low cost VOIP alternative to your PSTN phone or switchboard, and as bandwidth increases online video technologies like webcasting and video chat will become easier.

The makers of mice, keyboards, routers and more are also getting in on the act, which gives you the option of making almost all your machinery planet-friendly. D-Link is making a lot of noise about their green networking products, which incorporate energy saving technology such as shutting down ports that aren’t in use. The company is also stripping down packaging and printing it with soy inks.

Face the press

It’s hard to put a green spin on the printing industry. Literally Millions of junk mail catalogues, newspapers and magazines are printed every week in Australia, many of them to be thrown in the bin unread or half read at best.

But they’re doing their best in the face of increased public concern. Typical of responses from the print industry is that of SA-based book printer Griffin Press. “We’ve spent considerable time and cost understanding our impact on the environment,” says national sales manager Warren Griffin. “We comply with the Government reporting requirements but have also implemented an Environment Management System (EMS). We’re also offsetting some emissions and working to further reduce that footprint and an audit by Zero Waste in South Australia found we were already showing a solid commitment to sustainability, so we’re proud of that.”

Perth-based Scott Print is moving ahead of the pack in environmentally friendly practices with the introduction of an environmental print audit. Marketing manager Rio Chard explains how it works. “In essence, we look at a clients’ print purchasing to determine how to operate more efficiently and environmentally. The audit can reduce the environmental impact of the company and the efficiency can also save money. We make suggestions on changes that can be made such as alternate stocks or changing the printing format to make the company operate with as little environmental impact as possible.”

Lastly, digital printing still has a distance to go before it reaches the price point of a traditional press, but for work like large banners and unusual substrates, it’s already taken over. With none of the nasty chemicals, run-off or materials disposal of the four colour web press, it’ll be a big step towards a earth-friendly printing industry.

Of course, there’s the option to not print at all. Ever since the birth of the web there’s been a mass movement of dense reference material away from paper, with everything from medical texts and legal proceedings to the government Hansard published and updated online. We’ve also seen a move to PDF versions of previously hallowed printed products such as annual reports over the last few years too.

The end of your life

Technology disposal isn’t easy. For a society so awash with gadgets, we’re surprisingly unprepared when it comes to getting rid of them. When Desktop asked a handful of vendors what initiatives they had or knew of for recycling their products at the end of the life cycle, the lacklustre response was pretty uninspiring.

The travelling recycling road shows conducted by vendors or local councils are around but they’re few and far between, especially for outlying areas. When it comes to old computers, there’s always Green PC, which means your old systems go to a good cause as they’re refurnished and resold dirt cheap to those on the other side of the digital divide. For 30 pieces or more Green PC will collect, but for just a few you have to deliver to them, and they can’t use anything with a chip older than a Pentium IV.

There’s so much more in the toolset of a designer than there used to be in the days of drafting boards and 2B pencils. That’s only because technology now allows us to control so many more aspects of the process, and that degree of control gives us a unique opportunity. Use it — start looking critically at every step of the process and you might just save the world…


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