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July 28, 2009

Green Electronics Council Founder Talks Green PCs

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Jeff Omelchuk, founder and executive director of the Green Electronics Council (GEC), to talk about the work that he, Microsoft, and the PC industry are doing to make sure that customers have easy access to green PC hardware. Jeff gave a lot of insight into GEC and their efforts to educate consumers, enterprises, government agencies and technology companies about why “going green” is so important. The full interview is below, and when you’re done, be sure to hit to find yourself the perfect green PC!

Brandon: What is the GEC? What is your mission?

Jeff: I founded the GEC In 2005, in recognition of the need to redefine society’s relationship with electronics. The motivation was that stakeholders in the chain of electronics all have important roles to play in reducing the environmental impact of certain products. Designers, users, manufacturers, purchasers, all need to work together to reduce the impact of electronic products. We recognize that electronic products and the communications they enable, they are a key to future sustainability. Yet, pound for pound and ounce for ounce they are the most environmentally impactful products on the planet. They have the capacity for good and improving communications and social efficiency but they are also very environmentally taxing. It’s an interesting case to dig into.

Brandon: That is very cool. I really like that you take a holistic view of how electronics work and take a look at the big picture. That being said, with such a great vision and mission, what is the goal and what kind of programs are you running right now to accomplish those goals?

Jeff: The Long-term goal is to get a consistent vision and definition of what sustainable electronics looks like and develop mechanisms and systems to move our global society toward accomplishing that goal, so we can get the benefits of electronics without the environment being saddled with so much of a burden.

GEC’s biggest program is called EPEAT, which is a green purchasing program for electronics that currently covers laptops, desktops and monitors. Another program of GEC is a partnership with Yale University for a forum for defining sustainable information and communications technology – we want to figure out a definition and a model of what that might be.

We’re also launching an international green electronics awards programs with Yale and other national, very high-profile stakeholders. The great thing about that awards program is that there are multiple diverse stakeholders, and we’re very committed to not bashing anyone; rather, we’re working cooperatively with all stakeholders to move the whole ecosystem forward. It’s very indicative of how we work across the board.

Brandon: That’s great. It’s interesting, the breadth of the programs you’re undertaking. You started to talk about EPEAT, which I think is probably most relevant to our readers. We covered what EPEAT is, so now I’d like to dig into how you came up with the idea for the EPEAT rating system and why its so important to consumers?

Jeff: Great question. EPEAT is a green rating system for electronics and to be honest (Laughs), I didn’t come up with the idea of it, or how it works! That was developed from over 100 stakeholders from all different sectors – advocacy organizations, PC manufacturers, institutional purchasers of electronics, recyclers, government agencies – all working together to solve a common problem, namely that it’s really difficult to specify green in a sound way, and difficult to know what products would meet that definition. There’s a problem because from a manufacturer’s perspective, different customers define green differently. To design a PC that meets everyone’s differing specs for green was a challenge, so there was a real need to create one definition that gives a consistent design target. Out of that common need, EPEAT defined the rating system, which is giving a definition of green that is quantified in a standard, published by IEEE, which defines green by 51 criteria and a certification program to identify what products meet the standards.

Brandon: What’s the incentive for a PC manufacturer to get their products registered, certified and tested? Is there something in it for them other than trying to ride the “Green Wave”?

Jeff: The simple answer is that we have been successful in getting purchasers of electronics to only buy those products that are green certified by EPEAT. The 800 pound gorilla is the US federal government – they require that nearly all PCs that the government buys must be EPEAT certified, which has created a market of over $60 billion for green computers. The simple reason the manufacturers participate, and we have participation by all the leading PC companies on the planet, is that they want a piece of that $60 billion!

Brandon: Very cool! Is EPEAT only in the United States or has this moved internationally?

Jeff: EPEAT was born in the USA and developed primarily by and for US and Canadian stakeholders, but since EPEAT launched in 2006, its use has grown dramatically. It effectively solves the same problems for purchasers in Brazil and Mexico, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout EU and Asia that it has here. We see manufacturers all over the world registering with EPEAT, and purchasers like HSBC and Marriott International, large government and public purchasers, all looking for EPEAT certified hardware.

Brandon: Do I have to spend a lot of money or can I go green at any price point and any form factor?

Jeff: There is no evidence that we can see that green PCs cost more. There are more than 1200 laptops, desktops and monitors that are EPEAT certified today, so there’s something for everyone. I don’t think there is a discernable price difference, meaning that there are PCs all over the spectrum of performance and form factors and style that are EPEAT registered. When I travel, I carry the Toshiba Portege R500; it’s one of the greenest PCs out there. It is a slim, sleek laptop and weighs about 2.2 pounds. Going small isn’t the only way to go green though.

Brandon: What are the different ratings EPEAT certifies? What tools are there to help me buy the greenest computer? I’m out looking for a green PC – what should I be looking for and what tips and tricks are there to make sure I’m buying the best green computer?

Jeff: First, EPEAT rates products as bronze, silver or gold, sort of like green, greener and greenest. It is not a subjective rating system where we think about it and decide what’s greenest; it is based 51 criteria quantified in an IEEE standard. 23 criteria are defined as required – all EPEAT registered products must meet all 23 – and then some meet the 28 optional criteria,

Products that meet these requirements are listed on the website, It’s an easy way to identify EPEAT registered products – sort of the “green electronics bible”. That database is maintained by each manufacturer, so it’s always up to date. It’s literally refreshed every few seconds.

The best way today for a consumer to identify green computers is to go to the EPEAT website; the cool thing it’s a fully searchable database. Click on anything and explore which of the criteria any product meets. It’s a deep database with complex search capabilities so you can look for a specific product. At that point, having done your research, you can go online or in stores. You won’t see EPEAT-registered products identified with stickers or labels in most brick and mortar stories yet, but they are often identified online. CDW, Best Buy and Office Depot and others identify EPEAT registered products, either as part of the technical specs or with an EPEAT logo. More and more you’re seeing the EPEAT specified rating in the online performance technical sheet.

Brandon: Let’s say I’ve done my research, I’ve gone out bought my green PC. How can I make my computer greener to own? Are there ways I can conserve power to maximize its greenness?

Jeff: There are three primary decisions purchasers have to make about a PC: First is what to buy second is how to use it and third is what to do when they are done using it. Each has environmental aspects. EPEAT is intended to answer the first question – what to buy. When you buy, you help create an incentive for manufacturers to keep designing greener products.

What are my recommendations to optimize a PC’s greenness? The first and most important aspect is to enable power management features of leading operating systems like Windows. Windows has very good energy management features, [Note: click here to learn about Windows 7 power management] and your best bet is to let the PC manage its own power. It does quite well on its own. It’s sort of an old wives tale from the dark days of legacy computing that computers don’t like to be turned off. That’s totally not true anymore – if you’re not using it turn it off!

I put most of my office electronics on a plug strip. After I shut down my computer and turn it off, I turn off the strip, because a little known fact is that computers and other electronics still draw power even when the device is in an off state. Just by unplugging, you can save a ton of energy.

The third thing I mentioned is how to dispose of your PC when you’re done with it. It takes a lot out of our planet to manufacture electronic products, so trying to get the most use out of products is important. The idea of buying a new product that’s greener to replace an old product seems intuitive but in reality, its not a very green idea because it takes so many natural resources to manufacture that new device. If you want or need new, the best thing you can do is extend the life of the original machine. Do what you can to use them as long as possible. When you’re done using it, try to find someone who can make use of it.

When it’s really at the end of its useful life, recycle it appropriately and be careful to recycle with a responsible recycler. That last part is particularly important, because sometimes it’s difficult to identify responsible recyclers. There was a great article that came out the other day from a group called the Basil Action Network, who followed a batch of PCs that the recycler had said were going to be recycled responsibly, and it turns out they weren’t recycled at all! There have been numerous cases of irresponsible recycling where machines are exported to countries in Africa or to China where they are “recycled” under the most terrible conditions, or at best are tossed in a landfill and left to be a public health hazard. It’s a serious failure of policy and legal control, both in the US and the receiving countries and we can avert that by making sure our recyclers are responsible.

Brandon: Is there anything else you want readers to know about EPEAT, about green PCs?

Jeff: I guess the one thought would be, when you go into a retail store or online, or interact with people about electronic products, ask salespeople if there are any sound ways to determine a computer’s greenness and if they don’t know, point them to the EPEAT website. It is a tool that can be used by salespeople in stores, and you can help spread the word!

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