oekom research AG

Computer Companies: Uploading the Environment


Courtesy of oekom research AG

Computer companies between progress and responsibility

An Environmental-Rating of eleven international computer manufacturers revealed that the Japanese company Fujitsu, with a Rating of B-, is at the forefront of environmental activities in the computer industry at this time. Immediately following the environmental leader are the companies Compaq (USA), NEC (JP), IBM (USA) and Sun Microsystems (USA), all with a C+ Rating. oekom research, the Environmental-Rating agency responsible for the Rating survey, identified Dell as the industry laggard with a grade of D+ on the scale that ranges from A+ to D-. Companies that did not participate in the Rating were Gateway (USA) and Samsung (KR).

Measures to reduce energy consumption

Recent estimates suggest that in Germany alone the amount of energy wasted by electronic devices in stand-by mode is the equivalent of the energy produced by two to four nuclear power stations. The European Commission has therefore begun taking action and has called on the manufacturers of electronic equipment to reduce the energy consumption values. Energy consumption is also becoming an increasingly important factor in purchasing decisions. Business customers and government authorities are limiting their purchases to equipment that complies with the requirements of the US Energy Star label. Most manufacturers have responded to this demand and are including Energy Star compatible equipment in their programs as a standard. However, the energy saving potentials are far from being exploited. Technological innovation has outpaced environmental labels here: the newest processors show that stand-by modes with an energy consumption of up to 80% below the Energy Star requirements are possible.

Product take-back in the pipeline

By the year 2004, it is estimated that 315 million computers will have become obsolete in the US alone. In addition, the rapid speed of processor and software development is making the lifecycles of hardware shorter and shorter. In order to deal with the mountains of obsolete electrical equipment, the European Commission has proposed a Directive that will require manufacturers of electrical and IT equipment to take back the products at the end of their useful lives for reuse and recycling (the WEEE Directive, Wastes from Electrical and Electronic Equipment). Manufactures are very critical of these legal efforts, especially the fact that the proposed Directive would require them to even take back products that were sold before the Directive comes into force. However, take-back guarantees by manufacturers are very likely. The Rating survey shows that individual companies such as NEC, Compaq and Dell, are only offering the service for business customers at this time.

Reducing dangerous flammability inhibitors

Halogenated flammability inhibitors commonly used in electrical equipment can cause toxic dioxins in the case of fire. The European Commission has therefore included a ban of certain brominated flammability inhibitors in the proposed WEEE Directive. The list of banned substances should also include antimony trioxide, a suspected carcinogen. The use of such substances can already be considered as unnecessary as the Rating survey shows: many manufactures are offering computer casings without these substances though they have not yet banned them outright. The substances are often still found in circuit boards, for example. However, alternatives are in sight. According to NEC, it has developed a plastic that does not need these flammability inhibitors and which is to be used in circuit boards in the future.


Overall it became clear that the computer manufactures are tackling the environmental challenge. The generally high standard of the companies  Environmental Management Systems demonstrates that the first foundations have been laid towards greening the industry. In addition, extensive take-back services offered by Sun and highly efficient processors are evidence of what is technologically and economically possible. Nevertheless: the computer industry associations are vehemently trying to water down the proposed EU take-back regulations, with the most vocal criticisms coming from US companies. If this trend continues, business may well find itself forced to implement far reaching changes by the regulators.

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