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Computers and IT

laptopComputers, tablets, mobile phones and other digital technologies have become a familiar part of our daily lives but as the range of products grows ever larger, is IT blighting our future or can we make it sustainable?

We need to be aware of the impacts on our world that buying electronic equipment has and find ways of minimising them.  Also the careless way we use them - leaving computers and monitors on and chargers plugged in - drains power unnecessarily.  Furthermore, data centres, which house the servers and other hardware that provide internet communications, are big energy consumers -estimated to use up to 1.5% of global energy.

We are using our computers more and more these days as technology brings us a wider world of functional and fun options.  Whether it's to download music, watch TV, surf the net or just write a letter it all means our computers are spending a lot more time in use than they used to.  But about 50% of the power that they use is wasted in heat and noise - and then, even when we are not using them, we often leave them on and they continue to drain power.  All that power is costing us the earth - both in cash and environmental damage. For example, an Energy Saving Trust study found that the average annual energy cost for a desktop computer in the home is £24, while the printer will cost £23.

Check your power rating

sust-it.net provides consumer information on the most energy efficient products on the market, including computers and printers - ranking them by power consumption.

There are simple things that we can all do to make how we use our computers more eco-friendly.  Here are 5 easy ideas.

1: Turn I.T. Off
If you're not using your equipment, switch it off!  This doesn't just refer to your PC.  Printers, scanners, routers, modems or external hard drives when left connected to your computer and switched on still use up the watts.  Wireless networks are tiny radio stations so if you're not routinely using yours turn it off - your system will be more secure, too. A powerdown device or smart power strip will automatically switch off your peripherals, such as router and printer, when you turn off your computer.

2: Meet your Power Manager
Your computer's operating system, such as Windows, is able to manage the power settings for your computer.  The most energy efficient option is to set your screen to go to standby or 'sleep' rather than to screen saver.  Many screen savers can use more processing power and more energy providing complex patterns and 3D pictures than when the screen is in normal use!
Your Power Manager can also power down hard drives when they are idle and set your computer to 'sleep' after a period of no use.

3: Use a laptop or tablet
Laptops and tablets use significantly less energy than desktop computers, typically about 19W when active compared to 70W for a desktop. However, they will also use energy when charging.

4: Think Then Print
Only printing when you really need to saves energy, paper and ink.  You can also print in 'draft' or 'economy' setting for most things, and print double-sided when possible.

Embodied Energy

Most of the lifecycle energy of a PC is consumed during its manufacture and disposal, with only about one-third accounted for by its actual use. Computers and other electronic equipment also contain a host of harmful chemicals and their manufacture uses vast amounts of resources.  We throw them away, on an all too regular basis, without a second thought.  The electronics industry is the world's largest and fastest growing manufacturing industry, and many are concerned that its green performance still has much room for improvement, hence the 'Green IT' movement.

According to the StEP (solving the e-waste problem) website, in 2014 e-waste globally amounted to over 41 million metric tonnes; in the UK alone we produced over 1.5 million tonnes. But only 6.5 million tonnes of global e-waste was formally collected and treated for recyling of materials of safe disposal. Moreover, the average PC contains over 1000 different materials many of which are highly toxic or carcinogenic, such as chlorinated and brominated substances, toxic gases, heavy metals, acids, plastics and plastic additives.

And the resources are still being used up; the 'e-waste' is still piling higher and higher.  In 1999 the average lifespan of a computer in the USA was 4 to 6 years.  By 2004 this had dropped to less than 2 years. In 2009 alone the US disposed of nearly 30 million computers and 129 million mobile devices (phones, PDAs, pagers, etc.). And much of this e-waste is exported to developing countries, for processing where working conditions are often hazardous.

Reuse or recycle!

The best way to cut down on electrical waste is simply to use products for longer. Instead of replacing your computer with a new model every couple of years, why not upgrade it, by increasing its memory or replacing the hard drive? It takes much less energy to make a new RAM module than an entire new computer. Or, instead of throwing items away, try to get them repaired or find a new home for them. Contact your local Freecycle or Freegle group to advertise your unwanted stuff.

Recycling centres operated by Staffordshire County Council accept a wide range of electrical items, including computers and other IT equipment. Moreover, several companies offer specialized computer disposal and recycling services covering the West Midlands, but generally they deal only with commercial business and public sector clients.

Corporate IT recycling

How does your business or workplace dispose of its old IT equipment? Here are a couple of local companies that offer IT recycling services:

  • Award-winning Stone Group, based near Stafford, will collect batches of IT equipment for in-house recycling or refurbishment. Email: recycling-enquiries@stonegroup.co.uk or visist www.stonegroup.co.uk for more details.
  • UK IT Recycling Ltd will accept home IT equipment for disposal at their recycling facility near Shrewsbury, but will not collect these items.

See also Disposing of electrical and electronic equipment.

Some computer manufacturers and retailers will accept old equipment for recycling when you buy a new item. For example, Dell will accept their own branded 'end-of-life' equipment for recycling at any time, or if you have purchased a new product from Dell they will accept any manufacturer's end of life items, within certain limits. See Dell recycling.

Similarly, PC World and Currys will accept any unwanted electrical item you bring into one of their stores, regardless of whether you bought it from them or not, and recycle it 'to the best of their ability'. However, prior removal of personal data from IT equipment is the customer's responsibility.

Data security

If you dispose of a computer, deleted files, passwords, credit card details, etc. remain on the hard drive, and can be recovered by anyone with the expertise and inclination to do so. It is advisable to remove the hard drive and physically destroy it before recycling. Alternatively, use an authorized computer recycling company and make sure there is a non-disclosure agreement in force. Any magnetic components can then be 'degaussed' to remove all traces of data prior to physical destruction.