Sunday, June 8, 2008

Green: The hot new colour for electronics

Green: The hot new colour for electronics

Scott Valentine, Journal Special Projects Writer

Published: 9:36 am

EDMONTON - Think for a moment about the amount of electronics we buy, use and dispose of each year in Edmonton.

Cell phones, iPODs, toasters, TVs, microwaves, computers, gaming consoles . . . what about the vast number of hard drives, computer servers, printers, copiers and fax machines used to conduct our day-to-day business?

All of these contraptions and conveniences consume a vast amount of energy and create enormous environmental threats when not properly disposed of. A typical computer monitor, for example, may contain more than six per cent lead by weight.

"Everything with a cord or a battery is considered e-waste," says Connie Bryce, director of community relations for the City of Edmonton's waste management branch. "It can't go into the regular waste stream and be composted because of the toxic elements in electronics."

In Edmonton, residential e-waste - a catch-all phrase for the electronic junk we throw away - can be recycled at one of the city's cost-free Eco Stations.

"There's two Eco Stations now, one at 51 Avenue and 99 Street, the other at 114 Avenue and 143 Street. There's another one scheduled to open in the southwest in 2010," says Bryce. "I think public awareness is pretty good."

According to Bryce's data, Edmontonians dropped off more than 1.1 million kilograms of e-waste in 2007 alone, up nearly 70 per cent from 2005.

All collected e-waste is sent to the cities new Global Electric Electronic Processing (GEEP), a private contractor the province pays $700 a tonne to process e-waste into reusable commodities. The GEEP facility can process about 20,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, enough capacity to handle Edmonton's current needs with room for about 70 per cent growth over the next few years.

But that doesn't mean consumers or business can afford to become lackadaisical about how we choose and use our electronics.

Industry Canada suggests asking questions about a manufacturer's cradle-to-grave waste management strategy before buying electronics and encourages consumers to buy only products bearing eco-friendly labels. For example, the EcoLogo indicates a a product has been assesses as "best in class" in terms of environmental management from the moment the raw materials are acquired through to the manufacturing, transportation, distribution, use and disposal of the product.

But the greening of electronics is not all on you and me. Business is getting on board too.

Apple recycled about 17 million tonnes of e-waste in 2007, Motorola provides no-cost disposal of your old cell phone when you buy a new one, and companies like The Source have partnered with the National Recycling Coalition to help shape the future of Canada's federal e-waste landscape. Other industries have jumped on board too: manufacturing, health care, construction . . . there's a good reason so many organizations across Canada - large and small - are adopting green thinking into their business strategy.

It's profitable.


By adopting new technologies such as "virtualization" - a cost and energy efficient way of managing big computer networks - businesses of all shapes and sizes can reap the benefits of going green. One such company is Edmonton-based PCL Construction Management. PCL runs hundreds of large construction job sites annually, all of which have intensive requirements for high-end computing power.

"When you look at how companies make business decisions - based on what things cost, how you market yourself, and the affect you're having on the environment - virtualization is one of those things that kind of brings it all together," says says Brian Ranger, General Manager of Systems and Technologies.

By phasing in virtualization over the last couple of years, PCL has dramatically reduced both its cost of doing business and its environmental impact.

"In some case, we've reduced the amount of servers we need from 30 down to one, and cut our energy consumption and the cost of things like air conditioning all at the same time," he says. "The reality is that it's just smart business."


Another Edmonton company with a green approach to business is social networking site, Nexopia. Nexopia incorporates green thinking into its strategy from the ground up: everything from taking its old gear down to an Eco Station through investing in more energy efficient server and networking solutions.

"We have about 1.3 million users," says Chris Webster, Nexopia's public relations spokesperson. "In total, we get about one-billion page views per month." According to, that makes Nexopia the world's fourth most frequently visited web site worldwide.

Servicing all those page hits requires Nexopia to have a sizeable data centre operation. Think: a big room with about 130 large computer servers that draw a lot of energy and require extensive air-conditioning to run at a safe temperature. In order to more effectively manage those requirements, Nexopia recently replaced some of its servers with new, energy efficient machines from Silicon Graphics, an environmentally progressive manufacturer based in California.

"Those machines use 80 per cent less energy. It helps cut our costs and makes sense for the environment too." says Reni Broemeling, head of systems administration.

So, for Nexopia, going green with their computer systems means reduced operating costs and the opportunity to craft a legitimate green marketing message. That sort of corporate responsibility plays very well with the environmentally aware 14 to 20-year-old demographic that makes up Nexopia's core clientele.

Like their contemporaries around the world, Edmonton's youth were raised with an awareness of issues like recycling, global warming and alternative fuels that far exceeds the education of previous generations; social networking provides the means to share and build on that awareness. For example, there are several very active discussion forums on Nexopia about things like the global food crisis, the affects of soaring fuel prices on world economy, and grass-roots environmental activism.

"Fourteen to 20-year-olds don't get asked a lot about their opinions on things like the environment," says Chris Webster, Nexopia's PR spokesperson." When they are, they tend to have very telling opinions.

"We ran a poll recently where we asked 'Should business be held more accountable for how they interact with the environment?'," he says. "The answer came back a resounding, Yes."


As Edmontonians continues to adapt with modern technology, the challenge of managing the environmental impact of our personal and professional electronics will only going to get bigger.

The message from those on the front lines of the green electronics movement seems to be that each of us - consumers, business people, government - need to take accountability for managing our own electronic lives in order to make our city sustainable into the future.

"We're in Edmonton, where people are pretty aware, so maybe it's a bit easier to get the message across," says PCL's Ranger. "But doing it the right way is important.

"You can't just play at being green because it's the flavour of the month."


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