CES 2011: How Green Is the Gadget Industry? New Report Talks Progress

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Photos via Jaymi Heimbuch

The Consumer Electronics Association has released a new report detailing how far electronics have come in becoming environmentally friendly, from design to energy efficiency to recycling. It tracks industry-wide efforts toward sustainability and progress since 2008, and touches on transparency of the industry as well. So just how much greener has the gadget industry gotten over the last two years?
The entire report can be found on CEA's website, but here are some of the highlights.

EPEAT-registered product sales went up 10% in 2009. I'm sure that no small part of that is due to NASA, the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration all having committed to buying EPEAT-registered computers since 2008, and the fact that EPEAT has certified hundreds of new products over the last few years. It's rather inevitable that EPEAT-registered product sales would go up at least 10% with the CE industry doing basically nothing but signing up for EPEAT certifications.

More CE companies are switching to greener packaging, including using bio-plastics and recyclable materials. Indeed, we've seen a shift by manufacturers from Apple to HP to Nokia all striving to reduce packaging waste as much as possible (which translates to a reduction in GHGs during transportation) and boosting the recyclability, and use of recycled materials in packaging.

The report notes that energy efficiency of products has gone up. "According to the EPA, 27,000 CE product models currently meet ENERGY STAR specifications. The average energy savings of ENERGY STAR electronics devices range from 20 to 55 percent." Unfortunately, without context, these numbers don't mean a whole lot. The report doesn't offer a whole lot of details, but the trend, I suppose, is that devices are getting more energy efficient as a whole. Of course, real energy savings is dependent on the user as much as the product as well.

The report also makes another observation that is tough to understand without context. It notes that the CE industry recycled 200 million pounds of electronics in 2009. Is that a lot? What fraction of everything thrown out is that? We need more context to tell, but unfortunately finding out what percentage 200 million pounds of e-waste out of everything tossed out that year is practically impossible. However, within the report the CEA notes that they've devised guiding principles on best practices for product stewardship:

1. Electronics should be recycled responsibly at end-of-life. Recycling electronics is important as a resource conservation and recovery issue.
2. A national initiative is needed to strengthen and make sustainable the infrastructure established in partnership with all parties on a Federal, state and local level.
3. All parties must be held to high industry practices, accountability and standards, including strict, responsible controls that protect human health and the environment.
4. Electronics recycling programs should be convenient to encourage participation by the public. Flexibility in the establishment of programs is necessary.

It's great that the CEA feels this way about recycling; however their enthusiasm is curbed when the government steps in with regulations of their own, as we saw with the hubbub over New York City recycling regulations last year. Over all, recycling seems to be more about brand image than high integrity practices within electronics companies, and all companies could be doing a better job factoring recycling into both their product design and recycling program implementation.

Finally, the report notes that transparency in sustainability reporting is important and that "[a]ll 10 of the largest CE companies by global revenue issue reports on their websites documenting their corporate environmental and social performance." It is indeed excellent when companies are transparent about their product lifecycle assessments and emissions reporting. However, there is still a long, long, long way to go before we have reliable, transparent, and trustworthy information available to consumers by electronics companies. It just isn't something that happens yet. Hopefully, however, it will.

Read the full report on CEA's website.

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