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Last Updated: Friday, 21 March 2008, 11:14 GMT
In search of a green machine
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click

What use is saving trees if the very technology that made it possible to go paperless is shipped across continents, non-recyclable and so power-hungry it has a carbon footprint the size of a bear?

A power-hungry office
Tackling the power-hungry office was a theme at Cebit

At the German tech fair Cebit, the emphasis was very firmly on energy conservation: getting the most out of what you put in.

The German IT association, Bitkom, set out its stall on the issue, pitting a power-hungry office from 2003 against the leaner and greener 2008 workplace.

Energy efficiency

With technology converging, the modern office saves energy and money.

"For example, in the 2003 office there was a printer, a copying machine, there was a fax, maybe there was a scanner. That's four different products which all need electricity," said head of technologies and services at Bitkom, Dr Mario Tobias.

"What we see today, and these are the products that are most sold to the customer, it is multi-functional devices, so there is only one product and that can do everything.

"This saves a lot of resources on the hardware side and also on the electricity side."

New 'green' office technology

And some of the best green ideas can be the most simple. Fujitsu Siemens has come up with a screen that, when it goes to sleep, uses absolutely no power.

Wolfgang Haid of Fujitsu-Siemens computers said: "Most of us don't switch off the computer when we leave the office, so a lot of power is used when the switch is on standby mode.

"This product is the first that automatically switches to zero wattage when in standby."

Cool waters

Water-cooling is being taken seriously by companies like IBM. This is because water can draw the heat out of sizzling data-centres better than air, so now companies can do without the air-conditioning which comprises 40% of their energy consumption.

"Water has a 4,000 times better thermo-conductivity than air and in addition to that we are using micro-technology to create very tiny channels, very much like in our circulation system and that improves the performance of this cooler," explained IBM's Dr Bruno Michel.

"Our carbon footprint is now about five times lower, and our goal is to create, in five years, a data centre that has a zero carbon emission."

Another way of reducing the environmental impact of data centres is to move them near to renewable energy sources such as hydro-electricity or wind-power.

Concentrating on energy consumption makes for a very business friendly shade of green - after all, what company is going to argue with the idea of cutting its electricity bill?

IT waste

Emphasising this side of the debate, however, may obscure some more awkward environmental questions being asked of the IT industry.

A child sorting e-waste
Children in developing countries are exposed to hazardous e-waste

Environmental campaigners Greenpeace were tucked away from Cebit's Green IT Village in a hall marked Peripherals. Their choice. They felt there was not enough emphasis on IT materials, e-waste and recycling at the show.

Greenpeace argue that the production and disposal of IT components poison us and our planet. One of the biggest offenders? PVC.

"PVC - it's a chlorine, it's a plastic. It has many problems all along the life-cycle of the PVC from production to the end, because of dioxins, because of waste, because of it not being recyclable, so we really push manufacturers to get rid of it," said Yannick Vicaire of Greenpeace.

"What we want to see is a real comprehensive approach, where the consumers don't have to choose between toxic-free, recyclable or energy efficient. We want all of this in a package."

Greenpeace also says that IT companies, rather than consumers, should dispose of used IT.

There is currently a hidden unregulated trade in hazardous e-waste, with much of it ending up in the hands of the untrained or children in the developing world, who harvest components and precious metals under poisonous conditions.

"In Europe, to be exact, what we are seeing is a lot of shredding and then you put it in a smelter and the plastic is burnt and the precious metals are recovered. It is not enough. This is not what we want," said Mr Vicaire.

"We want more dismantling. And before even thinking of recycling, we want people to think of repairing and refurbishing."

Parts of the IT industry are beginning to take notice. And there are some good ideas out there for energy efficiency.

Perhaps Cebit's environmental theme will open industry and consumer eyes to the possibilities of an IT revolution in green.

Time for the IT crowd to go green
24 Sep 07 |  Science/Nature
The mechanics of e-waste recycling
03 Jul 07 |  Science/Nature
Dealing with toxic computer waste
27 Dec 06 |  Business

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