Week of 4/20/2008

Dear EarthTalk: My old computer finally bit the dust and I am in the market for a replacement. Are there any particularly "green" computers for sale these days?

—Brian Smith, Nashua, NH

Thanks in part to pressure from non-profits like Greenpeace International—which has published quarterly versions of its landmark "Guide to Greener Electronics" since 2006—computer makers now understand that consumers care about the environmental footprints of the products they use.

The latest version of Greenpeace’s guide gives high marks to Toshiba, Lenovo, Sony and Dell for increasing the recyclability of their computers and reducing toxic components and so-called "e-waste" (refuse from discarded electronic devices and components). The group also credits Apple, HP and Fujitsu for making strides toward greener products and manufacturing processes, but emphasizes that even such top ranked companies have lots of room for improvement when it comes to the environment.

PC Magazine, the leading computer publication for consumer and business users, recently assessed dozens of personal computers according to environmental standards it developed in-house based on energy efficiency, recyclability and the toxicity of components. The publication also factored in various "green" certification schemes such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar program, the European Union’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, Taiwan’s Greenmark and the computer industry’s own Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT).

A truckload of Apple Mac Minis, among PC magazine's top choices for green desktop computers. Others include Zonbu
s Desktop Mini, HP Compaq
s 2710p and dc7800, Lenovo
s ThinkCentre a61e, and Dell
s OptiPlex 755.© Ack Ook, courtesy Flickr

The top choices for green desktop computers, according to PC, are Apple’s Mac Mini, Zonbu’s Desktop Mini, HP Compaq’s 2710p and dc7800, Lenovo’s ThinkCentre a61e, and Dell’s OptiPlex 755. As for laptops, the greenest current models include Dell’s Latitude D630, the Everex Zonbu, Fujitsu’s LifeBook S6510, and Toshiba’s Tecra A9-S9013.

Perhaps more important than the green-ness of your new computer is what you do with the old one. Stuffing it into the trash or setting it out for curbside pick-up may be the worst thing you can do with an outdated computer, as heavy metals and other toxins inevitably get free and get into surrounding soils and water. If the machine still works, donate it to a local school that can put it to use, or to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, either of which can re-sell it to help fund their programs. Another option is to donate it to the National Cristina Foundation, which places outdated technology with needy non-profits.

Once you’ve gotten rid of an old computer and outfitted yourself with a spiffy new green one, you might just want to score a few green accessories. Brooklyn, New York’s Verdant Computing, which bills itself as a purveyor of "the greenest computer products on the web," sells remanufactured ink and toner cartridges, laptop cases made from recycled plastic, GreenDisk CDs packaged in recycled plastic jewel cases, solar-powered MP3 accessories, energy-saving printers and even a software program, GreenPrint, which modifies the print programs on your computer to economize on paper and ink/toner use. Verdant also has most products shipped to consumers directly from the manufacturers to save re-shipping.

CONTACTS: Greenpeace International; PC Magazine; National Cristina Foundation; Verdant Computing

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any efforts underway to green the air travel industry? It seems to me that it must be one dirty business from a pollution standpoint.

—Elias Corey, Seattle, WA

Environmental battles over the siting and expansion of airports are as old as the air travel industry itself, but only in recent years have the airlines themselves been under pressure to go green.

And there’s no time like the present for the industry to take some action: Air pollution from commercial jets is a growing concern among scientists, as is air travel’s role in climate change because of the more acute warming effect of emissions when they are disbursed so much closer to the upper atmosphere.

On a flight from New York to Denver a commercial jet generates between
840 to 1,660 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger, or about what an SUV generates in a month.© D'Arcy Norman, courtesy Flickr

According to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, an independent group of scientists that advises the British government, emissions from aircraft will likely be one of the major contributors to global warming by the year 2050. According to USA Today, on a flight from New York to Denver, a commercial jet generates between "840 to 1,660 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger. That’s about what an SUV generates in a month."

Despite still gloomy times for the industry post-9/11, a few are actually responding to the call. Virgin is blazing new trails as part of a $3 billion investment in energy efficiency. The company is experimenting with biodiesel and ethanol—fuels derived from crops—and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in ethanol-related businesses. But don’t expect to ride on a biofuel-powered jet anytime soon.

Airplane makers are getting in on the act, too. Boeing successfully flew the world’s first hydrogen-powered, fuel cell airplane in April 2008. A company spokesperson called the plane—a small one-seater—"full of promises for a greener future." Boeing is working to develop a commercial version, but uncertainties about hydrogen production and distribution put this advancement well into the future, too.

So what can consumers do to fly greener today? Sharon Beaulaurier of GreenLight magazine suggests choosing airlines with newer, more fuel-efficient fleets such as JetBlue, Singapore Airlines or Virgin.She adds that direct flights are better than those with stopovers, as frequent take-offs and landings use more fuel than when the planes are cruising. She also recommends avoiding airlines and airports with bad track records for delays, which leave planes idling and spewing greenhouse gases for hours unnecessarily.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) runs AvoidDelays.com, which helps fliers choose airlines and airports based on on-time departures. Airlines with poor records include American, Atlantic Southeast, ExpressJet, Mesa and United, according to NATCA, which also calls Chicago’s O"Hare, New York’s LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelphia and San Francisco the worst airports for catching on-time flights.

Meanwhile, the European Union wants to require airlines touching down in Europe to participate in continent-wide carbon reduction programs already in place. Backers hope it will cut Europe’s exponential growth in airline emissions in half by 2020. Some carriers oppose the plan and are fighting it in court.

CONTACTS: Virgin Group; Boeing; AvoidDelays.com