Like I promised, I did go to Green Saturday at CES (but only after staggering halfway back to the hotel twice before committing); it’s just taken me a while to get over the flu to tell you about it. The hour-long presentation awarded tech companies for their efforts to recycle e-waste. The Environmental Protection Agency bragged about its new Plug-In to e-Cycling Program, which aims to reduce the two million tons of e-waste trashed each year by sponsoring trade-in events with makers and sellers of electronics. The EPA’s trying to create a certification program for recycling PCs, monitors, keyboards, TVs, DVD players and VCRs, cell phones, and so on. Vendors in the room also got props for removing lead and other heavy metals from circuit boards, making flame retardants without halogen, and reducing the amount of waste packaging.
“Anybody who walks through this exhibition hall will realize that we’re making real progress,” said EPA Assistant Administrator Tom Dunne. I sort of beg to differ, but maybe I'm expecting the future to arrive in an unrealistic lightning flash.
The Consumer Electronics Association, which brings us the CES mega-tradeshow, is calling for a national approach to recycling old machines; e-mail them your suggestions. (RetroBox founder Stampp Corbin would likely nod.) But the CEA doesn’t want the government to pass e-waste laws in haste, and it says consumer electronics aren’t even the top 10 energy-using items in people’s homes. Last summer the CEA organized against a New York bill that would have given that state power over energy efficiency matters in electronics. The CEA argues that a national solution is wiser in the long term. After all, can you imagine if certain kinds of mp3 players or flatscreen TVs could be sold everywhere but the Big Apple state?
The eco-design efforts applauded by the CEA and the EPA wouldn't have happened if it weren't for regional laws forcing them upon the global marketplace. For example, without Europe’s RoHS [“rose” or “ross] rules, there'd still be far more lead in circuitboards; just wait for the EU to pass REACH restrictions on the use of everyday chemicals.
Excerpt from CEA statement:
By their very design, electronics must use electricity efficiently and effectively…Beyond design, there also are major industry trends which naturally drive, support, and sustain the energy efficiency of electronics…In many ways, electronics are part of an energy savings solution. Many home networking products help save energy by providing increased control over home heating, cooling, and lighting systems. Information technology and telecommunications products allow teleworking and remote access to information and entertainment content, both of which save fuel and reduce smokestack emissions.
I’m glad that the CEA is thinking about energy-efficiency, but is this the extent of what electronics can do for humankind, for our soil, groundwater and our commerce? Such examples are modest. A high-market, networked house that lets you set the fridge temperature from an upstairs bathroom, via a crash-prone operating system, isn’t my idea of a green home.
And while eliminating energy-hogging, executive air travel through remote access software is laudable, what about all of the junky Treos and Blackberries that businesspeople toss each year for the shinier model? Besides, many studies show that teleworking leads people to work longer hours and to bring their work home. Sacrificing personal space for 24/7 connectivity to work may only keep us more in the rat race, enmeshed in a culture of disposability.