Sustainable Electronics Initiative

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The Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) is dedicated to the development and implementation of a more sustainable system for designing, producing, using, and managing electronic devices.

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Strange Magic: Electric Waste Orchestra Combines DIY, Music, and Creative Reuse of Electronics

It’s a big week for local Makerspace Urbana. One of their projects, founded by member Colten Jackson, has been featured in several blog posts this week, including one on SolidSmack.com by Simon Martin, a post for Wired by Margaret Rhodes, another on the Atmel Corporation blog, and still another by Nara Shin on Cool Hunting. On the 1st and 3rd Thursday of every month, from 7-9 PM, Champaign-Urbana area Makers can head over to the group’s space in the basement of the Independent Media Center to participate in the Electric Waste Orchestra, or EWO, turning discarded electronic parts into musical instruments.

Extending the useful life of electronic products through reuse is an important step to take before recycling, if possible, because so much energy and resources (both natural and human) go into the production of electronics in the first place. You might immediately think of donating computers to schools, letting your child inherit your old smartphone, or replacing the cracked screen on your iPhone as ways to extend electronic product life. Those are all excellent examples, but Jackson and his fellow Makers have found a more creative way to give even the most obsolete electronics a new lease on life, turning them into fantastic looking musical instruments that create haunting sounds through truly ingenious interfaces. For example, in the following YouTube video, Jackson demonstrates the use of old hard drives cobbled together in a shape reminiscent of a keytar, hooked through an Arduino to sound generation software. The instrument has an old number pad for manipulating pitch.

I can’t help but think this project could encourage lots of people to both overcome their phobia of tinkering with electronics (thereby teaching them they really do have the power to repair) and consider, perhaps for the first time, the tragedy of sending sophisticated electronics to the landfill or recycling center before their time. And even those who aren’t technically inclined could enjoy brainstorming on such projects, because who doesn’t like music? Bravo, Makerspace Urbana! Maybe a new electronic music genre will emerge (Junktronica, perhaps?).

For those who are neither musically nor technically inclined, Makerspace Urbana also hosts another project than can extend the useful life of electronics. On Sundays from 2-4 PM, their Computer Help Desk provides “free personal computer diagnostic and repair services to the community.” Through “collaborative repair” folks learn to troubleshoot and fix their computer problems alongside an more experienced volunteer.

But Makerspace Urbana certainly isn’t all about electronic device-related DIY. Check out their web site for full information on all their projects and services.

 

How to Use the EPEAT Registry to Purchase Greener Electronics–Archived Webinar

In June 2014, the State Electronics Challenge hosted a partners-only webinar on how to use the EPEAT product registry. The recording of that webinar is now available to everyone online, and if you’re in any way involved with electronic equipment purchases for your organization (or just for yourself), I highly recommend checking it out at http://stateelectronicschallenge.net/Webinars/How-to-Navigate-the-EPEAT-Registry.wmv .

What’s EPEAT?

If you’ve never heard of it, EPEAT is the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool. It’s been around long enough that everyone simply refers to it by its acronym, which is less of a mouthful. Originally funded by the US EPA, EPEAT is a searchable database of electronics products in certain categories, which is administered currently by the Green Electronics Council. EPEAT criteria are developed collaboratively by a range of stakeholders, including manufacturers, environmental groups, academia, trade associations, government agencies, and recycling entities. Criteria for current product categories are based upon the IEEE 1680 family of Environmental Assessment Standards (IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, also known primarily by its acronym). The criteria include attributes from throughout the product life cycle–i.e. throughout the stages of design, manufacture, use, and disposal. The following attributes are listed as part of the “Criteria” section of the EPEAT website (where you can also find more specific information about criteria for each of the current product categories):

  • Reduction/elimination of environmentally sensitive materials
  • Material selection
  • Design for end of life
  • Product longevity/life extension
  • Energy conservationEPEAT_logo
  • End-of-life management
  • Corporate performance
  • Packaging
  • Consumables (unique to Imaging Equipment standard)
  • Indoor Air Quality (unique to Imaging Equipment standard)

Manufacturers voluntarily choose to meet the EPEAT criteria with certain products and have those products appear on the EPEAT registry at the appropriate level–bronze, silver, or gold, depending on increasing percentages of optional criteria a product meets (all registered products meet certain required criteria). So, EPEAT is not a certification program; however, you can have faith in the validity of the EPEAT labels because manufacturer claims are verified by independent experts–see the “Verification” section of the EPEAT website for complete information. See profiles of EPEAT’s “Product Registration Entities” or “PREs” at http://www.epeat.net/participants/pres/; the list includes the likes of UL Environment. This is not greenwashing; if a product bears the EPEAT label, it has been very closely scrutinized by folks who are experienced at validating environmental claims.

The EPEAT registry currently includes desktops, laptops/notebooks, workstations, thin clients, displays (computer monitors), televisions, printers, copiers, scanners, multifunction devices, fax machines, digital duplicators and mailing machines. New products may be added to the registry in the future as criteria are developed for them.

Go to http://www.epeat.net/participants/purchasers/, scroll down to “Purchaser Types,” and click on each of the different tabs to see a list of some of the organizations that already use EPEAT.

What’s the State Electronics Challenge?

SECThe State Electronics Challenge (SEC) is a free program for public entities (such as government agencies, schools, universities, libraries, etc.) that encourages and assists with purchasing greener electronic office equipment, reducing the impacts of computers and imaging equipment during use, and managing obsolete electronics in an environmentally responsible way. Participants are called “partners.” Partners receive resources (such as access to partner-only webinars as mentioned previously), technical assistance, the opportunity to receive recognition for their efforts, and sustainability reports for their organization, documenting their accomplishments and the resulting environmental benefits in terms of greenhouse gas reduction, reduction of toxic materials, energy saved, etc.  SEC is administered by the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC).

You can sign up to focus your activities around one or more of three life cycle phases–purchasing, use, and end-of-life management. Reports are submitted annually, but since everything is voluntary, you do whatever is manageable given your situation. If you complete all of the “required activities” in a life cycle, your organization can receive recognition (“required” is only for the sake of recognition) at the bronze, silver, or gold level, based on the number of life cycle phases addressed. Are you sensing a chromatic theme here? See the “Programmatic Requirements Checklist” for details.

Even if your organization is not a public entity eligible to become a SEC partner, I’d encourage you to use this checklist, and the resources available on the SEC web site, for guidance on greening your organization in terms of electronics office equipment consumption.

What am I watching again, and why do I care?

The link at the beginning of this post will take you to a recording of a webinar hosted by SEC, which you can watch in Windows Media Player or similar application. The recording is just under 50 minutes long. In it, Andrea Desimone of the Green Electronics Council leads you through the EPEAT search functions, from the basic search to more advanced options, including criteria-based searches, filtering results, exceptions, and comparing products. You’ll also learn tips and tricks to help you sift through the 3,000+ products registered with EPEAT.

As for why you should care–I could give you lectures on the multitude of environmental and social impacts of electronics that could convince you purchasing greener electronics is important. But for starters, focus on the fact that you could save money while being environmentally responsible, and that you could tell your organization’s clients and customers all about how you did it. And it could be pretty easy to accomplish with the help of resources like EPEAT and/or SEC. For some statistics, see http://www.epeat.net/about-epeat/environmental-benefits/ and http://www.stateelectronicschallenge.net/why_join.html and see if you don’t think learning about achieving those sorts of results is worth less than an hour of your time.

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