At the Core of Sustainable Electronics

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At the Core of Sustainable Electronics

By Carol Baroudi
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Sustainability in electronics product life cycle examined by @Carol_Baroudi, @ArrowGlobal's Value Recovery business
Friday, July 31, 2015 - 11:00am

There’s rightfully much ado about the climate—from extreme weather events, severe droughts and water crises to fossil fuels and the race to renewables. However, there’s far too little talk about electronics and their roles in environmental ecosystems.

Ironically, the folks who say, “Don’t worry, we’ll invent solutions to all our problems” are typically envisioning some technological breakthrough that will save us all. They give little heed, I suspect, to “what will save technology.”

Technology is a critical component of contemporary existence in both developed and developing nations. It is not “a nice to have”—it’s a necessity of modern life.

To feed growing demand, billions of new technological devices are manufactured every year—those devices are made predominantly of nonrenewable materials, are extremely energy intensive to manufacture, and gobble energy throughout their life. Our continued use of electronics—without responsible power consumption and end-of-life processing—is not sustainable. Certain raw materials will run out, and contamination from discarded electronics will threaten more lives.

To address these risks, intervention is needed along the entire electronics product life cycle, including:

  • In the design stage:
    – Making the best choices in materials, making safer, less toxic devices
    – Designing for energy efficiency
    – Designing for ease of repair and demanufacture
  • At purchase:
    – Considering energy efficiency
    – Considering anticipated usable life
    – Planning ahead for end-of-life services
  • During use:
    – Paying attention to power-saving settings
    – Centralizing shared resources, like printing, to avoid the overhead of many seldom-used, always-powered-on resources
  • At end of life:
    – Maximizing reuse through repair, refurbishment, upgrade, redeployment, and donation
    – Ensuring unusable assets are recycled with the highest environmental standards

The biggest lever
Every stage in an electronic product’s life cycle is open to improvement, but what we choose to buy actually has the most impact on driving sustainability improvements. Using environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) to inform the purchase of electronics not only does good things for your organization’s environmental footprint, it also signals to manufacturers that sustainability attributes matter in product selection. For guidelines on the EPP of electronics, a great place to start is the EPEAT registry.

The biggest buyer
The biggest single purchaser of IT equipment in the United States is the federal government. Realizing the direct impact of the government’s purchasing choices, an interagency task force chaired by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration published the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship in 2011.

The strategy aims to “ensure that the federal government leads by example” by “ensuring that it is the nation’s most responsible consumer of electronics.” It has trickled down to become policy, the most recent version captured this March in Executive Order – Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade. The Executive Order calls for

  • ensuring procurement preference for environmentally sustainable electronic products;
  • establishing and implementing policies to enable power management, duplex printing, and other energy-efficient or environmentally sustainable features on all eligible agency electronic products; and
  • employing environmentally sound practices with respect to the agency’s disposition of all agency excess or surplus electronic products.

The Executive Order qualifies environmentally preferable products or services as those that “meet or exceed specifications, standards, or labels recommended by EPA that have been determined to assist agencies in meeting their needs and further advance sustainable procurement goals of this order or meet environmental performance criteria developed or adopted by voluntary consensus standards bodies.” Since 2006, both presidential Executive Orders and the Federal Acquisition Regulations have made clear that federal purchasers must procure EPEAT-registered, environmentally preferable electronic products.

For a brief moment (a matter of weeks), a new Executive Order (E.O. 13693) intended to broaden and deepen the federal government’s ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship appeared to omit the EPEAT requirement. But clarifying implementation instructions issued in June make it clear that even though the program is not named directly in the Executive Order text, “EPEAT is currently the only tool available to achieve the electronic stewardship mandates.”

“It’s really gratifying to see this reaffirmation by the Federal Environmental Executive that EPEAT provides the most credible, effective guidance available for federal procurement of environmentally preferable electronics,” said Sarah O’Brien of the Green Electronics Council, the nonprofit group that manages the EPEAT system. “For nine years, U.S. government purchasers have been able to rely on EPEAT—and this ongoing commitment means that the immense environmental benefits realized from responsible federal electronics procurement will continue to grow.”

Sustainable electronics won’t simply happen without the ongoing diligence of many across the entire electronics life cycle. Responsible manufacturers work to lessen the environmental footprints of their products. EPEAT plays a huge role in helping these manufacturers certify their products to the highest environmental standards. Green purchasing efforts help keep the demand for environmentally preferable products on the rise. And here at Arrow’s Value Recovery business, we continue to innovate an environmentally optimal end of life for electronics. Got ideas about how to make electronics more sustainable? Drop me a line at

Carol Baroudi works for Arrow’s Value Recovery business, promoting sustainability awareness and action. Her particular focus is electronics at the IT asset disposition stage, e-waste, and everything connected. Follow her on Twitter @carol_baroudi and connect with her on LinkedIn:

Keywords: Technology | Arrow Electronics | Carol Baroudi | EPEAT | Environment & Climate Change | ITAD | Recycling | sustainable electronics