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Closing the tech-waste loop

The first sustainable business summit at UT Austin highlights a number of issues about reducing wasted energy and resources with tech products.

Last weekend I spoke at the first University of Texas at Austin Sustainable Business Summit. It was an interesting and stimulating event that brought together a diverse group of speakers and audience members to think about different aspects of environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and business. It was put on by the McCombs School of Business and largely organized by students, who did a great job.

One of the first panels had to do with computers, waste reduction, and energy usage. It had a bit of tension to it as one of the panelists was from Dell, and another was an environmental activist who has been pressuring Dell for several years on energy reduction, take-back schemes, and overall sustainability issues. They handled it professionally, but you could tell there was some history there!

The other panelists were from IBM, which is working on low power CPUs for servers, and from a company called Verdiem, which makes software to centrally manage large, installed bases of PCs in corporate environments. Such installations use massive amounts of electricity for prolonged unnecessary periods (such as at night), creating part of the big draw of "phantom" or "vampire" energy. The software allows central control of shutting down unnecessary machines while still allowing maintenance upgrades.

There was discussion of options for renewable energy sources for large data centers, and in fact an article in Wednesday's USA Today illustrates the attention being paid to this issue:

Intel is now the largest corporate user of renewable energy in the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency said this week. The chip giant plans to purchase more than 1.3 million kilowatt hours in wind, solar and other types of green power each year. That's enough energy to power about 133,000 households.
Intel won't say how much extra the green power costs. But the company considers the purchase an "investment in the renewable energy market," spokesman Bill Calder says.

This article also highlights one of the other themes that came up in the panel: business will be an earlier large adopter of green technologies than consumers, because the business case is easier to make and corporations are more familiar with thinking about total cost of ownership rather than up-front costs, which dominate in a consumer retail world. Companies are comfortable with the concept of amortizing capital costs over several years and can easily roll that into their tax calculations. Consumers, not so much.

The other theme that came up was that so goes Europe, so goes the rest of the world. Europe, and in particular Scandinavia, is really driving the legislation on curbing energy, forcing take-back schemes, and in general prodding industry to be more responsible. (The U.S. laws are very weak in most regards in this area, California being a common exception.) But since manufacturers like Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM have global supply chains and distribution channels, it doesn't make economic sense to make different models for different markets. So they go with the high bar set by Europe and the U.S. benefits.

But this is just a cop-out on the part of U.S. government. In fact, according to one of the summit panelists, the U.S. is one of only three countries not to sign the Basel treaty on international hazardous waste trafficking (where toxic waste is just dumped on another country's shore). Who are the other two? Haiti and Afghanistan.

We should be matching the European legislation to show commitment and to avoid things falling through the cracks. If we match it (as opposed to creating slightly different rules as we do with car crash tests for example), it will make everything easier and do more to encourage sustainable practices.