By Robert Frisbee
Climate change is the issue of our time. Each of us approaches this enormous crisis with many opportunities to address the facts and fears we face. In the past, practical and concerted actions helped diminish or resolve “mega” problems such as polio, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. This provides hope that once again the conscious, collective work of governments, organizations, industry and individuals can change the course of a global threat.
The Green Electronics Council is part of a collective effort to create electronics that address this environmental crisis. Our goal is to provide practical levers so global purchasers of electronics can solve rather than create crisis conditions. The challenge in doing so is two-fold: to rethink how a technology-centric society can continue moving toward sustainability, and to take the appropriate steps to help electronics become a cornerstone of a vibrant and healthy world.
This effort was born in 2001, when a group of technology leaders set out to define green electronics and establish a way to help identify the “best of the best.” The resulting EPEAT system has become an easy and effective rating tool trusted by thousands of purchasers in every corner of the globe. As that system endures, electronics will continue to morph at a breakneck pace, increasing the pressure on manufacturers, purchasers and governments alike to maintain their focus on environmental leadership in our shared technological reality.
Greening the electronics of tomorrow
The electronics of tomorrow hold both great technological promise and the potential for environmental peril. Things like 3-D printers, wearables, converged devices and the cloud will continue to revolutionize how we interact with the world and with one another. Underlying that innovation are new materials, new design challenges, new supply chain concerns, and new questions about disposal and extended life. Each of these topics offers an opportunity for environmental success. And each of them must address the new consumers and regions that are becoming reliant upon these devices.
Individual and institutional purchasers alike live in a world where 24-month product lifecycles are considered long, where recycling and take-back infrastructures vary widely, and where eco-labels compete for environmental and social relevance among fragmented interest groups. In a world where everything we might use – from laptops to clothing to cars – could potentially be e-waste, how we address these challenges is critically important.
These concerns were at the heart of a Green Technology Summit recently co-hosted by Yale University and the Green Electronics Council. More than two dozen technology leaders from the manufacturing, advocacy, recycling and government sectors identified five areas that pose the biggest threats to the greening of electronics. Some were philosophically related, such as a prevailing business model that relies on the proliferation of “disposable” devices with short lifecycles. Others were more focused on solutions, such as the need to develop new infrastructures that enable more effective resource recovery, and discussion of the unknown environmental and economic influence of new manufacturing models on the electronics landscape.
Green electronics and the circular economy
This series of articles with TriplePundit will also address topics that may influence the future of electronics in the circular economy. Which recycling and recovery methods show the most promise? How can we apply the lessons from years of energy-efficiency gains to the next generation of electronics? Will the same design resources spent developing wearables and the Internet of Things also be extended to ensure these new technologies don’t exponentially add to the e-waste epidemic?
Answering these questions requires a global effort, because the community’s response will have worldwide impact. India, China, Brazil and Africa have shown significant interest and progress in environmental performance, in part because they’re at the center of disposal and supply-chain decisions. Yet now and in the future, those regions also represent key consumers of new and “second-life” electronics. As a result, leadership choices made in the United States and European Union will have a tangible impact on the environmental progress in these massive, emerging markets. When it comes to the greening of electronics, it is vital that the world’s leading buyers and manufacturers of electronics reinforce their environmental leadership rather than shy away from it.
In the meantime, our global community must address head-on both the challenges and opportunities that accompany device proliferation and transformation. Some would see the ubiquity of electronics strictly as a threat, a one-way ticket to landfills overflowing with prematurely obsolete devices. Others would recognize that proliferation as an opportunity to develop new service-oriented business models and bring new economies of scale to recycling infrastructures.
Likewise, the rapid transformation of electronics has the potential for both positive and negative outcomes, both of which must be explored and addressed. For instance, these innovative new products are smaller and use less energy than earlier technology, both of which are favorable. However, these incredibly powerful devices require much more energy and water use for their actual production, and their minuscule form factors pose significant challenges to recycling and recovery.
Technological progress always has a yin and yang; advancing the greening of electronics is no different. The design, production, purchase and recycling of electronics can deliver significant environmental benefits, but only when stakeholders seek – and walk – a common path. While devices may proliferate, it is imperative to avoid a commensurate proliferation of environmental standards that aim to race to the bottom rather than reach for aspirational targets. Now is the time to focus on solutions and progress, not mechanics and politics.
The first step on that journey is rethinking what it means to be a green electronic. This decade-old conversation was rejuvenated at Yale, will seek your input through this TriplePundit series, and will engage thought leaders at the Emerging Green Conference in September. Every individual and institution has an important voice – and role – in redefining “green electronics” for the global market. The evolution of technology and our environmental health are inextricably linked, and we must work together to address these challenges head on.
Image credit: Flickr/Fulkrum
Robert Frisbee is CEO of the Green Electronics Council.