A greener glow for computers

PESCADERO, CALIFORNIA - Dee Harley runs her Pescadero goat farm with a deep environmental ethos. Instead of chemical fertilizers, she relies on goat and chicken droppings. She recycles all the water used on the farm, and grows the edible flowers and herbs for her artisan cheeses without pesticides.

But until recently, Harley had never thought about applying her environmental lens to the company's computers.

"A lot of times we would keep the computers on at night," she recalled. "And our old computers were not energy-efficient. I didn't even know that Energy Star computers were available. We needed to be educated."

From goat farms to law firms, America's 26 million small businesses rely on technology today more than ever before - to the tune of spending a projected $143 billion this year on new software, computers, printers and other office electronics, according to JupiterResearch.

Computers may not be the first thing that comes to mind for small business owners like Harley who are trying to minimize their environmental footprint.

But there are a lot of things businesses can do to green their computers - from the moment of purchase until they're ready to discard them. And many of these steps are cheaper and easier than in the past.

The federal government gives its Energy Star label to computers, printers and other office equipment that is 85 percent energy-efficient - meaning, it wastes no more than 15 percent of its power through heat.

Servers are not yet included in the Energy Star program. However, you can find a list of servers with energy-efficiency of at least 85 percent through the nonprofit Climate Savers Computing Initiative at www.climatesaverscomputing.org.

Meanwhile, another computer rating program called EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) takes a broader and more ambitious approach than Energy Star.

EPEAT gives bronze, silver or gold ratings to computers and monitors that meet a variety of environmental criteria such as recycled content, reduction of toxic materials, energy efficiency and recyclability.

Manufacturers currently don't put an EPEAT label on their products, though, so you'll need to look up rated models on the EPEAT Web site ( www.epeat.net) before going shopping.

Many small-business owners and employees assume their computer is using less power when their screen saver is on. Wrong!

"Your screen saver uses as much power as when the monitor is on - all it does is cover up what's underneath," said Terri Reece of Reece Computer Systems, a Half Moon Bay computer consulting firm that works with small businesses.

To genuinely save energy, businesses need to activate their computers' power-management option, which directs the computer and monitor to enter a low-power sleep mode after being left idle for some minutes.

The energy savings can be dramatic: A typical non-Energy-Star computer would use 741 kilowatt-hours of energy over the course of a year if left on all the time, compared with 123 kilowatt-hours with power management, according to the Climate Savers Computing Initiative.

"Just by turning on power management, you're cutting energy use by up to 90 percent - power management is huge," said Climate Savers spokeswoman Barbara Grimes.

(To enable power management on a Windows PC, right-click on the desktop, then click on Properties and Screen Saver. Grimes suggests setting the monitor and hard drive to hibernate after 15 minutes, and the whole computer to hibernate after 30 minutes.)

Small-business owners with computer networks can buy power-management software from companies like Verdiem and 1e to control the sleep settings on employees' computers. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is offering a rebate of $15 per computer on such programs.

Finally, to maximize energy savings, business owners should train their staff to turn computers and other equipment off at night.

"There's no cost to all this, but it can mean big savings for the environment and potentially big savings for the business," said Preston Gralla, editor of GreenerComputing.com.

Many offices have separate printers, fax machines, scanners and copiers. But for mom-and-pop businesses and home offices, a single $200 all-in-one printer often can handle all those jobs for less energy and money.

"Instead of four things pulling power, you have one thing that's Energy-Star rated," said Reece. "Boom! You see enormous power savings."

At the same time, making old equipment last longer also saves resources. Sometimes you can avoid buying an entirely new computer by upgrading parts of your old one such as its memory.

The much-ballyhooed paperless office remains a utopian vision, but small-business owners can still do a lot to decrease their paper use.

Large printers can often be set to automatically print on both sides of the page: If buying a printer, ask if it can handle "duplex" printing.

"You can cut your paper use almost in half," said Susan Kinsella, of Conservatree, an environmental paper consulting firm in San Francisco.

Even old, single-sided printers can be instructed to fit more text on each sheet of paper. (But don't get carried away, or you'll need a magnifying glass to read them.)

There's also an innovative software program called GreenPrint that can decrease the amount of paper that's wasted in printing Web pages and e-mails.

GreenPrint automatically eliminates "orphan" pages that end up blank except for a few characters or a single line of a url. It also allows users to easily eliminate images from a Web page if they only need to print the text.

GreenPrint is free to individual users, and offers volume discounts to business users at www.printgreener.com.

Recycled paper got a bad rap in the past for jamming printers, but the quality of today's recycled paper is typically as good as new.

It's also much more affordable and available than in the past - for sale at large chains like Office Depot as well as small office supply stores such as www.thegreenoffice.com that specialize in environmentally friendly products.

Look for at least 35 percent post-consumer recycled content, which refers to the portion of the pulp that comes from people's recycling bins rather than scrap at paper mills. Or if you're more ambitious, look for 100 percent post-consumer content.

Choosing paper that is labeled as "processed chlorine free" will support manufacturers who are developing cleaner technology, according to Kinsella.

And when buying paper with some virgin content, look for the logo of the Forest Stewardship Council, which indicates that the timber was sustainably harvested.

Other options for recycled printing supplies include toner and ink. But try these out on your printer before making a permanent shift. Some businesses do just fine with remanufactured ink and toner cartridges, but others complain that they clog their printers.

"I've seen many more issues with ink than with remanufactured toner," Reece said.

When ready to retire old computer equipment, see if you can arrange a second life for it at a school or nonprofit. Organizations like www.ireuse.com and www.techsoup.org can help you find homes for used but viable office equipment.

If they're too obsolete for reuse, computers can be recycled for parts and materials. But make sure you choose a responsible recycler that dismantles products here in the United States rather than in a foreign country with lax environmental laws.

"What you care about with recycling is what happens downstream," Reece said. "What does your recycler do with the recycling? Do they sell it to China, where it could end up dumped on a sandy beach?"

Best Buy last week launched a pilot program to recycle old computers for free. Some computer manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard will recycle old hardware for free or for a small fee. You can also find lists of reputable recyclers at sites such as www.erecycle.org and www.computertakeback.com.

In Dee Harley's case, she turned to Terri Reece to recycle her old computers as part of bringing the farm's technology operation into the 21st century.

Reece helped Harley Farms buy five new Energy Star computers. She showed Harley and her staff how to use their power-management features. Reece also created a network for the farm's computers for the first time.

Previously, employees had been sharing documents by printing them out and passing them around. So one unexpected benefit of the new networked system was that Harley Farms cut its paper use from two cases per month to about one-quarter of a case per month.

"We were very, very inefficient, which certainly wasn't green," Harley said. "We run our farm very sustainably. But I really didn't get sustainability when it came to our computers. This has been a huge change."


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