Making Your Computer Carbon Neutral

I’ve admitted it before… I love my computer, and giving it up is out of the question.  But I do understand that while the internet saves me millions of miles of travel a year and countless hours spent locating far-flung information, the computer itself uses plain ol’ polluting energy and requires a lot of rare and potentially hazardous materials in its manufacture which are as often as not disposed of improperly.  So how to green the central machine?

First up, the average of one pound of CO2 emissions put out daily by computers worldwide.  Luckily, the wonderful social, email and action network Care2 has already thought about that, and nicely offers you the option to neutralize that carbon… with a single click! And if taking 10 seconds to sequester some CO2 to offest your surfing is too much to ask, I expect to see your name in the newspaper soon, because you must be REALLY busy on something important.  Visit Care2’s Daily Click to Donate page here to ease your digital burden on the planet today, and while you’re there, click to donate to 9 other great causes like saving tiger habitat, preventing breat cancer, and preserving marine wetlands.

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Next, consider efficiency when purchasing computer components.  It may surprise you to know that a vast majority of computer components are manufactured in one of a handful of factories in the same town in China.  One that barely even existed twenty five years ago.  To read all about it, pick up the fascinating global travel book “Confessions of an Eco-Sinner” by Fred Pearce (2008).   Though he only deals with this particular product for a chapter, the whole book is filled with amazing (and scary) tales of how the things you take for granted make it into your shopping bag.  But back to that computer… Assuming that practices amongst these competitors are relatively equal, and given that they are all run by guys who went to school together as youth this is proabably safe, you won’t gain much by purchasing an Acer over a Compaq.  That doesn’t mean, however that all manufacturers are equal.  Some voluntarily, and some in response to the European Union’s RoHS Directive which calls for elimination of certain toxic metals from their computers (see this Treehugger article for more information), computer manufacturers have started to take notice and make greener PCs.  Apple and Toshiba are notable leaders in this movement, though others are jumping onboard every day.  I’m waiting for the day one releases a totally non-toxic and recyclable computer… and while wishing, can it be compostable too?

If you’ve got your machine itself under control, there are still ways to go further, by examining the source of the energy that goes into your plug.  I’m a huge fan of surfing the web at Whole Foods Markets, because the company has a policy of purchasing renewable (wind) energy credits to offset the electricity used at each of its stores.  So when you play Tetris while eating your lunch, you’re actually helping to stimulate the alternative energy market and doing so in a totally renewable way.

Of course, they’re a popular store, so if you can’t get a seat there, you’re may be forced to strike out on your own.  There is, of course, the off-grid option of generating your own electricity with wind, solar, or micro-hydro.  These are the golden children of rugged off-griddists everywhere, and one will likely be a pretty good fit for your area.  If you don’t have the ability to install your own generation system, consider paying a little premium on your power bill for the Green Power option.  Similar to Whole Foods’ arrangement, customers who purchase green power get the satisfaction of knowing that their purchases contribute to the development of renewable energy portfolios while enjoying the on-demand power we all expect.  Or you can lease solar panels from a company that charges you a bill like any other utility but sells the power you generate using their panels back to the grid.  Solar without the start-up costs.

Speaking of power, here’s to all you night-owls out there! You see centrally generated power (utility-style) must usually be produced at the rate of greatest demand within a day.  So even though 1-5 pm is the peak power usage, at night, the generators are pumping out the same amount of juice to supply a drastically lower demand. Where does all this power go?  Some municipalities have constructed power recycling schemes, such as Los Angeles DWP’s practice of pumping water uphill at night to use for generating hydro power during daylight peak demand hours.  Other cities let this power go to waste.  That is why power use rates are so much lower at night, because utilities hope to entice people to use this cut-price power whenever possible.  So go ahead and burn a little midnight oil (figuratively of course) to take advantage of this financial reward.

Peak vs. Off-Peak

Peak vs. Off-Peak

And lastly, please, friends, recycle your computer responsibly when it reaches the end of its useful life.  Replacing single components that go bad is almost always a cheaper option than buying a whole new machine, so consider that first before declaring it dead.  But when it is, there are organizations across the globe which will take your computer, make any necessary repairs, and give it to a person in need.  Many states won’t even let you toss computer equipment legally, so you’ll be doing your civic duty, too.  If you don’t, sadly, the common practice is to let children pick through the toxic rubble of old electronics, pulling valuable metals out and stripping copper off boards in acid vats wihtout any protective measures.  It sounds like one of this “Save a child with a dollar a day” commercials, but it really happens.  Don’t be the reason little Pradeep gets cancer by the age of fifteen.

All said, the fact you can shop online rather than at retail stores, commit acts of generosity such as campaigning for social rights and making donations to worthy causes, and research innovations that make your life greener in so many ways makes the computer a world-saving tool no matter what you do to mitigate its environmental consequences.  But doesn’t doing it green just feel so much better?

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