Environmental standards often aren't the first thing we think about when hunting for a new computer. We may check to see if it's well made, whether it uses a lot of energy to run and whether the manufacturer has a good rep. But oftentimes (probably too often), the bells and whistles win out over whether the apparatus was made with environmental concerns in mind.
It turns out that many companies are considering environmental design qualities anyway -- the reduction in environmental harmful emissions, the decrease in exposure to toxic substances like mercury and the use of substances that don't end up in landfills -- thanks to a set of privately designed standards. Those concerns are addressed by a set of standards designed through a consensus process of all key stakeholders.They are called EPEAT, or Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, and they serve as the Green Electronics Council's gold standard for environmentally preferable electronics.
According to Sarah O'Brien, who serves as the director of stakeholder engagement for the GEC, the EPEAT program emerged as an answer to a dilemma shared by manufacturers and those buying their products: how to ensure that the equipment that purchasers were using were as environmentally compatible as possible.
"By the early 2000s, business and government organizations realized that their ICT (Information and Communications Technology) operations had huge environmental impacts – in terms of energy consumption, but also problems with unsafe disposal and recycling, toxic content, lack of recyclability or recycled content, and on and on," O'Brien said. "They wanted to address those issues and reduce their own impact, but struggled to define what constituted an environmentally preferable electronic product." The EPEAT program would eventually streamline the environmental standards for manufacturers and purchasers alike.
O'Brien noted that while it was the growing amount of e-waste that prompted a call for new, decisive regulations, the EPEAT program actually grew out of a consensus between industry representatives who proposed "'uniform measuring stick' of environmental performance criteria [that would] enable purchasers to easily incorporate these important criteria into their tenders." That stakeholder dialogue took several years of hard work, but in 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized the efforts with a grant to support implementation of the program. That year EPEAT was accepted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and accredited as an IEEE American National Standard, launching the way for national and international recognition as an environmental standard for the electronics industry.
One of the most valuable contributions of the EPEAT program is the post-consumer recycling of valuable components and materials, steps that help reduce the presence of e-waste in landfills throughout the world. According to 2013 EPA surveys, only 40 percent of electronics are recycled in the U.S., as opposed to being sent to the landfill. However that statistic is improving, up by 10 percent from the year before. The EPEAT program both provides a mechanism for components to be recycled and reused, and publicizes the industry benefits of doing so.
"One of the particular advances linked to EPEAT is the inclusion of post-consumer recycled resins in electronic products – which was really unheard of when EPEAT hit the market," O'Brien said. As a result, "dozens" of new product models now contain recycled resin, reducing the demand for new plastics. The side benefit of the EPEAT program, said O'Brien, is that it helps support a growing market for post-consumer plastics.
The number of governments and private companies that have used EPEAT in recent years as purchasers of green electronics has helped EPEAT gain international recognition. The U.S. and Canadian governments, the state of California, Kaiser Permanente, and Microsoft have all made use of the EPEAT program in past years. This increased demand encourages manufacturers to adhere to standardized environmental guidelines.
In March 2015, President Obama issued an executive order updating federal sustainability requirements. Supporters of the EPEAT program noted that the order omitted the federal government's 2009 requirement for departments to adhere to EPEAT standards, and replaced the directive with an order that guarantees "procurement preference for environmentally sustainable electronic products." According to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the directive was changed to reflect the administration's intention to "[avoid] endorsement or recommendation of any particular non-federal label." Later, Implementing Instructions issued by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Federal Office of Sustainability clarified that EPEAT is still the only procurement standard for electronics that meets the Federal government’s requirements.
Other state, county and international government agencies, however, still maintain endorsement of the EPEAT standards as the go-to method for ensuring products are made with environmentally preferable components and are utilizing recycled materials whenever possible.
In addition, more than 50 different manufacturers now adhere to the standards, including LG, Lenovo, Apple, Xerox and Dell.
While the EPEAT program is currently limited to products such as desktops, laptops, tablets, screens and copiers, O'Brien said the standards are expanding constantly to meet the needs of the industry. On the drawing board are standards for mobile devices such as iPhones, tablets and other smaller devices that have taken the market by storm since the development of the EPEAT registry.
"The roadmap was developed in 2005," O'Brien said. "We all underestimated the speed with which [the development of] mobile devices would take." Those standards are expected to be out in about a year.
And of course, with the increasing use of solar energy, environmental standards for photovoltaic panels are also in the works. O'Brien said the GEC hopes to have the standards finalized within the next two years.
"I think the main lesson EPEAT teaches all of us is that when purchasers aggregate their demand [by banding together] to send a clear signal in favor of more robust, benign, efficient and effective products ... they can move the market," said O'Brien.
Editor's note: Care about green electronics? Consider attending the Emerging Green Conference in September.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.