High-tech companies like to portray their industry as the greenest of industries - saving everything from paper to business travel. But tech companies continue to be major sources of pollution and waste.
These facts have to the fore once again in a yearlong New York Times investigation that found huge amounts of wasted electricity in powering warehouse-size data centers driving the explosion in digital information. Add these findings to the industry’s failure to control the spread of the electronic waste it creates, and it’s easy to question the validity of its commitment to protecting the environment.
What The Times Found
In looking behind the industry’s green mask, The New York Times found that data centers can waste 90% or more of the electricity they draw from the grid. That’s a staggering amount when you consider the world’s digital warehouses use 30 billion watts of electricity, equal to 30 nuclear power plants, according to The Times. Because burning fossil fuels produces a lot of today’s electricity, the tech industry’s contribution to global warming and air pollution is significant.
The Times article has attracted critics, including Dan Woods, an author and contributor to Forbes and CITO Research. “The New York Times failed in its mission to accurately explain the important issue of improving efficient use of power in data centers, and instead wrote a confused and incomplete article that is unworthy of its reputation,” Woods wrote for Forbes. Michael Gartenberg, a Gartner analyst, tweeted “Wow. So much assertion with so little facts. Wow.”
In general, critics said The Times ignored the high efficiency rates of data centers run by Internet companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google. In addition, the newspaper was criticized for not giving enough space to efforts underway to improve data center efficiency.
But I found the article did a credible job laying out the problem of wasteful energy consumption by the information industry. And the piece is the first in a series, so critics may get the details they want in future articles.
(Is Microsoft the worst offender? See Brian Proffitt’s Microsoft’s Energy-Wasting Strong-Arm Tactics Show That Redmond Hasn’t Changed.)
The Green ‘Crisis’
In the meantime, environmental protection groups that have been battling the tech industry for years remain fierce critics, despite acknowledging some progress. A major complaint is the failure of consumer electronics companies to design products that are easier to recycle so hazardous electronic waste doesn’t end up in dumps in China, India and Africa.
“Your average consumer electronics are, unfortunately, still in crisis, in terms of really having an outlet for responsible and sustainable recycling,” said Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
The problem is in product design, Davis said. Many consumer electronics are too difficult to tear apart to extract and either recycle or properly dispose of the toxic chemicals they contain, including lead, mercury and cadmium. As a result, even though more than two-dozen states have mandatory laws governing the handling of e-waste, recyclers find a lot of the products too expensive to dismantle. So they simply ship the junked electronics to other countries, where the gear is salvaged for components and the rest tossed in dumps. Often, the toxic chemicals contaminate the ground and eventually end up in water supplies.
“That’s a pretty horrendous outcome for these high-tech products,” Davis warned.
Apple’s Nearly Non-Recyclable MacBook
Apple offers a good example of what Davis is talking about. In July, environmentalist denounced the company’s decision to drop 39 products from certification by the Electronic Product Environment Assessment Tool. The system measures the environmental friendliness of computers, monitors and laptops.
Essentially, Apple believed its products were green enough and didn’t need EPEAT approval. Critics said it wanted to continue with its hard-to-recycle design that reached an apex with the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. In a teardown analysis of the new system, Kyle Wiens of iFixit wrote in Wired that it was the “least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart.” Its construction, along with that of the iPad, was also a nightmare for recyclers. (Not to mention tinkerers.)
“The design pattern has serious consequences not only for consumers and the environment, but also for the tech industry as a whole,” Wiens added.
Apple reversed its decision after organizations that required EPEAT certification said they would either drop Apple or review upcoming purchases.
Despite the change of heart, the incident raised questions about the tech industry’s commitment to the environment when it might affect profits. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition released a report in August that found many makers of ultrabooks were heading in the same direction as Apple by not using removable batteries.
Whether it is consumer electronics or data centers, the tech industry is going to find it increasingly difficult to defend the green image it has so carefully crafted. Let’s hope it fights back with solutions and not just “greenwashing” PR.
Lead images courtesy of Shutterstock.