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ICT and Environmental Hazards

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Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has changed our society remarkably in the last few years, one key feature is its great and continuously-increasing size. According to BCC Research, the ICT global market was worth $38.4 billion in 2010; the forecast is a growth to $58.4 billion by the year 2015. In plain words, this means that many people all over the world use ICT products, and that in the future, even more people will use ICT devices. The consequence of this additional use will be an increasing impact on the environment; this will happen despite the fact that some ICT devices are more efficient, and with a potentially smaller effect on the environment. Although its effects on our everyday lives are obvious, the hazardous effects that this technology may have on the environment are much less clear and seldom talked about and are often neglected or overlooked.

These impacts can be expressed throughout the lifecycle (from the manufacturing, use and disposal) of the ICT product. Both the inefficient use of energy and the manufacturing and disposal of product leads to the generation and release of toxic compounds into the environment. This report exposes some of the hazardous effects on the environment resulting from the use of ICT and suggests possible recommendations. The implementation of these recommendations would go a long way in maximizing the efficient use of ICT product and significantly minimize the hazardous impacts of ICT on the environment at large.

ICT is an industry in a state of constant change and development, with the continuous production of new, different, and more advanced devices. The manufacturing of these products, therefore, implies a very high level of technology and the use of specific elements/chemical compounds. Some of these elements can be very toxic; heavy metals such as cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb) and arsenic (As), for instance, are all present in desktop computers or in standard computer monitors. Other compounds are also hazardous. An example can be the use of brominated flame retardants (BFRs). BFRs are chemicals which are applied to the electronic parts of the devices for safety reasons. The environment is exposed to hazard resulting from the use of ICT. Exposure to the toxic compounds mentioned above can take place after the disposal of the ICT devices. There can be exposure, for instance, if these elements/chemicals leach from a landfill into the environment; clearly this process can cause damage and have noticeable impacts on the environment, both short and long term. The incineration of parts of the ICT devices may also cause exposure to hazardous substances.

The incineration of waste which contains these kinds of chemicals is forbidden by law. It can happen, however, that these parts may be accidentally incinerated together with other domestic waste. This can be particularly dangerous if FBRs are present, as during the combustion they can form brominated dioxins – very toxic molecules. Another possible source of exposure is the re-use and/or recycling of these devices, or of part of the devices. Strict regulations are in place to recycle materials which may contain toxic elements; these, however, are not always applied in developing countries. In places like China, India or in some African countries, there is an “informal” market, to recover and reuse the valuable compounds of these ICT devices. Metals such as gold or copper, for instance, are present in the majority of the devices; they are recovered using processes without any safety precautions; these processes can generate hazardous compounds, posing a threat both to the environment and to the workers involved in them. Energy consumption is another problem associated with ICT devices and it is also an important issue to consider. For the majority of ICT devices, a greater proportion of the energy is necessary for manufacturing the device than for using the device itself.

ICT and Environments

The environmental problems associated with computers are two-fold. High energy consumption and highly toxic component materials are currently inherent characteristics of ICT products, thus making their production, use and disposal ecologically unsound. These two major problems would be the main focus of this work and would be discussed extensively.

Energy Consumption
Globally speaking, the issue of energy consumption is one that involves all sectors and industries. According to Norfold (1990) and Kawmoto (2002), electronic office equipment such as desktop computers uses significant amounts of electric power. Atypical CPU uses 120 Watts (W= 1 joule/second) of electricity, while a CRT monitor consumes added 150W (United States Department of Energy, 2005). This implies that a standard office computer which is left on 8 hours per day, for 5 days a week can consume up to 561.6 kW of fossil fuel derived energy. However, this figure more than triples if such a computer is left on throughout the night or during the entire week.

Physical components and Toxin
Desktop computers generally consist of three major units: the main processing machine (CPU Consisting of power supplier, fan, IC boards, DVD drive, CD drive, hard disk, soft disk and shell casing), the monitor and the keyboard. These major units are composed of various materials, which, in turn consist of a wide range of Chemicals, elements and heavy metals. Some of these materials, such as platinum, have a high recovery and recycling efficiency (95%), while others cannot be recycled at all (e.g. mercury, arsenic and barium). There are, however, two desktop components that represent the largest environmental hazards with respect to bioavailability, monitors containing CRTs and flame retardant plastics.

Need for Green computing
The extensive use of computers and IT has made our life easier and as such the use of IT is ever on the increase resulting in greater power consumption. Greater power consumption means greater emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. It is observed that most of the computer energy is often wasteful. This is because we leave the computer ON even when it is not in use. The CPU and fan consume power; screen savers consume power even when the system is not in use. Insufficient power and cooling capacities can also results in loss of energy. It is observed that most of the datacentres do not have sufficient cooling capacities. This results in environment pollution. This could be because of defects in Manufacturing techniques, packaging, disposal of computers and components. Another effect is because of toxicity. There are toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing of new computers as well as disposal of old computers and components which can enter the food chain and water. Green computing is the environmentally responsible use of computers and related resources. Such practices include the implementation of energy-efficient central processing units (CPUs), servers and peripherals as well as reduced resource consumption and proper disposal of electronic waste (e-waste).

One of the earliest initiatives toward green computing in the United States was the voluntary labelling program known as Energy Star. It was conceived by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992 to promote energy efficiency in hardware of all kinds. The Energy Star label became a common sight, especially in notebook computers and displays. Similar programs have been adopted in Europe and Asia. Government regulation, however well-intentioned, is only part of an overall green computing philosophy. The work habits of computer users and businesses can be modified to minimize adverse impact on the global environment. Here are some steps that can be taken: * Power-down the CPU and all peripherals during extended periods of inactivity.

* Try to do computer-related tasks during contiguous, intensive blocks of time, leaving hardware off at other times. * Power-up and power-down energy-intensive peripherals such as laser printers according to need. * Use liquid-crystal-display (LCD) monitors rather than cathode-ray-tube (CRT) monitors. * Use notebook computers rather than desktop computers whenever possible. * Use the power-management features to turn off hard drives and displays after several minutes of inactivity. * Minimize the use of paper and properly recycle waste paper. * Dispose of e-waste according to federal, state and local regulations. * Employ alternative energy sources for computing workstations, servers, networks and data centres. Approaches to Green Computing

Computer virtualization is the process of running two or more logical computer systems on one set of physical hardware. With virtualization, a system administrator could combine several physical systems into virtual machines on one single, powerful system, thereby unplugging the original hardware and reducing power and cooling consumption. One of the primary goals of almost all forms of virtualization is making the most efficient use of available system resources. Virtualization highlights the idea of “Green Computing”; by consolidating servers and maximizing CPU processing power on other servers. Storage virtualization makes it possible for systems to access a shared storage subsystem. It’s clear that this approach would reduce the number of storage devices needed, the amount of power required, the heat produced and, as a wonderful side effect, would reduce the operational and administrative costs of backup, archival storage etc.

Power Management:
Lower power consumption also means lower heat dissipation, which increases system stability, and less energy use, which saves money and reduces the impact on the environment. The Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI), an open industry standard, allows an operating system to directly control the power saving aspects of its underlying hardware. This allows a system to automatically turn off components such as monitors and hard-drives after set periods of inactivity. In addition, a system may hibernate, where most components (including the CPU and the system RAM) are turned off. ACPI is a successor to an earlier Intel Microsoft standard called Advanced Power Management, which allows a computer’s BIOS to control power management functions. Power management for computer systems are desired for many reasons, particularly:

* Prolong battery life for portable and embedded systems
* Reduce cooling requirements.
* Reduce noise.
* Reduce operating costs for energy and cooling.

Power supplies
Power supplies in most computers (PSUs for short) aren’t designed for energy efficiency. Infact, most computers drain more power than they need during normal operation, leading to higher electrical bills and a more dire environmental impact. The 80 Plus program is a voluntary certification system for power-supply manufacturers. If a PSU meets the certification, it will use only the power it needs at a given Load i.e. it won’t use more power than it needs.Various initiatives are underway to improve the efficiency of computer power supplies.


So far, consumers haven’t cared about ecological impact when buying computers, they’ve cared only about speed and price. But as Moore’s Law marches on and computers commoditize, consumers will become pickier about being green. Devices use less and less power while renewable energy gets more and more portable and effective. New green materials are developed every year, and many toxic ones are already being replaced by them. So green computing is a mind-set that asks how we can satisfy the growing demand for network computing without putting such pressure on the environment. There is an alternative way to design a processor and a system such that we don’t increase demands on the environment, but still provide an increased amount of processing capability to customers to satisfy their business needs. Green computing is not about going out and designing biodegradable packaging for products. Now the time came to think about the efficiently use of computers and the resources.


BCC Research: 2010 Information Technology Research Review. Accessed December 10, 2011.
Retrieved from: http//:www,decodedscience.org/ict project
Williams, E. (2009). Environmental effects of information and communications technologies.
Retrieved from: http://www.uoguelph.ca/isc/documents/environcs_00.pdf

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