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5 criteria to guide your green notebook purchase

Once you settle on your finalist list using some great ZDNet reviews, take a peek at the EPEAT ratings to see which systems do best for energy efficiency, toxic materials and recycling credentials.

Realistically, unless the college or university that you or your college-age child attends (or will attend) starts REALLY late, you probably have already made whatever notebook computer purchase you were going to make this fall.

But if you procrastinate or you are already thinking about Christmas presents, the team behind the EPEAT rating system has come up with some suggestions for things to consider that will help you find the greenest notebook possible.

Yes, it is not coincidental that its suggestions also happen to be the same criteria that are used to rate technology under the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). The way that the EPEAT system works is that each product has to meet a certain base level criteria; its ability to earn points in additional areas determine whether it will get a Bronze, SIlver or Gold rating. Right now, EPEAT covers computers, notebooks, workstation systems and notebooks, thin clients, monitors, and what are described as integrated systems. (Those are things like an Apple iMac.)

When I spoke with Sarah O'Brien, EPEAT's Director of Outreach and Communications, about the five criteria that EPEAT uses to judge notebooks, I also asked about other categories might be handled under EPEAT in the future. She confirmed that an update for systems and displays could be out in September or October, she said. In addition, new systems for rating televisions and imaging devices are nearing completion, she said.

When it comes to notebooks, if you care about green credentials, these are the five things you want to put in you mind. If I didn't agree with them, I wouldn't be highlighting them. I happen to be interested in what's at the Gold level right now, so I'm only highlighting those products with my comments.

  1. Energy efficiency: Energy Star features are the benchmark. Believe me when I tell you, its REALLY important to make sure your notebook lasts as long as you think it will last. I am on day three of no power right now, because of the hurricane. EPEAT also looks at whether or not a given piece of technology uses renewable energy chargers. For example, a Toshiba Portege R500 - PPR50U and the multiple Lenovo ThinkPad T400 model that show up at the top of the Gold-rated notebooks list support the highest version of Energy Star possible and have renewable energy accessories.
  2. Life expectancy: Considerations here include warranties or whether or not a notebook can be upgraded easily. The two models I mention above both do well in this area, as well, including the fact that both sport modular designs. So far, these notebooks perform pretty comparably. (I should note that there are several other Lenovo and ThinkPad models that also have 23 optional points on the Gold list, the two models I have listed aren't the only ones.)
  3. Recycling infrastructure: You should look at not only whether or not the vendors who makes your coveted notebook has a recycling program in place but also at whether a product was built with recycling in mind. Increasingly, manufacturers are constructing systems so that they can be taken apart and reused or recycled more easily. Approximately 90 percent of both the Toshiba model and Lenovo model can be either recycled or reused. Again, pretty evenly rated. But also in a negative way. Neither notebook uses EPEAT's recommended minimum of postconsumer recycled plastic or the recommended minimum of renewable or bio-based plastic materials.
  4. Toxic materials: You should look at the steps that the vendor has taken to remove materials such as lead, mercury and brominated flame retardants. The elimination of these materials not only will help reduce mining of certain minerals and substances, it will help minimize the end-of-life impact. If you search specifically on this criteria, the two notebooks I've been looking at don't make the grade, but several other Lenovo ThinkPad models do, as well as the HP EliteBook 2560p Notebook PC Energy Star and the Sony VPCEB31FX/BJ. (There are others, but these are the ones that pop up first.
  5. Packaging: This includes the steps that have been taken to minimize boxes and internal cushions and measures aimed at replace certain substances, such as metal inks. Another consideration you should look for in your manufacturer: whether or not it will take back packaging or whether it has created packaging that can be completely recycled. Lenovo does a better job here, according to the EPEAT rating. Lest you think this doesn't matter, consider that less packaging means the more notebooks that can be shipped in a single truck. Fewer trucks means less impact on the environment.

One final note on notebook selection: I’d just like to note that you can actually use the EPEAT database to look at each area in a pretty granular way. That is, if you weight a particular consideration higher than others and you are you’re looking at three different Gold rated products, you can specifically look at how that product performs on that particular criteria. So, once you narrow down your choices using the reviews from some of my fellow ZDNet bloggers, you can compare the finalists for their green credentials using EPEAT.