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Running the ecological numbers

Posted: 03 May 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:green engineering? computer? pc? environment? energy?

My daughter often inspires my columns, but this time she's helped me solve one of the discipline's more puzzling mysteries: why we've been slow to embrace green engineering. It all started when, in settling up Anwyn's allowance, she was shocked to discover that she had only a few dollars left until April. We reminded her that she had borrowed money from us to buy a few impulse items on a shopping trip. At 7, it's only natural that she'd have trouble anticipating the long-term impact of a few trinkets on her budget, but once we ran the numbers a few times, she stopped pouting and began to work out a plan to ensure she saved for the things she really wants.

That led me to wonder whether failing to "run the numbers" ourselves has been one reason we've been so slow to bring green practices to electronics. While inertia and short-sightedness may have played a role, much of our difficulty may arise because we've had a hard time quantifying the real costs, benefits and impacts of the stuff we make and the real dividends we can reap from more sustainable alternatives.

Happily, I stumbled on an interesting new book that may help us get a handle on many elusive issues that have prevented a rational look at environmental issues. "Computers and the environment: Understanding and managing their impacts" (Kluwer Academic Publishers) explores the life cycle of a computer from multiple perspectives, and helps weave together the seemingly disconnected universes of engineers, business people and environmentalists.

Even if the book's editors--Eric Williams and Ruediger Kuehr--had managed only to come up with all kinds of fascinating factoids about the resources consumed by computers and related products, it would be a worthwhile read. We learn, for instance, that making the average 53lb desktop computer and monitor requires 530lbs of fossil fuels, 50lbs of chemicals and 3,330lbs of water, or roughly the weight of a sport utility vehicle. We also learn that the total energy used per year of owning a computer is roughly the same as a refrigerator.

But rather than simply quantify the carnage, the book documents possible solutions--including how decisions made by consumers and manufacturers on how PCs are used and disposed of have an enormous effect on environmental impacts. I was blown away to find that reselling or upgrading computers saves five to 20 times more energy than recycling over the computer's life cycle.

And while it does not give us a complete road map to eco-utopia, the book does supply a solid first-pass survey of the business, management and regulatory issues confronting manufacturers, and details many practical solutions that are working today for innovators in Asia, Europe and the United States. It's exciting to find so much good research on so many difficult topics in one place, especially when it shows us how to run the numbers and identify financially attractive opportunities to start building our businesses as if their grandchildren's lives depended on them.

- Lee Goldberg

EE Times

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