Greener IT the day after tomorrow?

It's time to take the disposal of technology as seriously as the purchasing

The latest Hollywood shock-buster, "The Day After Tomorrow", carries a rather heavy-handed lesson on the dangers inherent in our fast-paced, consume-all culture; humankind will reap a terrible price for pushing the technological envelope uninhibited by any kind of environmental conscience.

Melting polar ice-caps and the resulting tsunami engulfing Manhattan are beautifully illustrated using the latest CGI technology -- as fundamental to the modern blockbuster formula as the reluctant hero, sassy damsel in distress and wise-cracking but expendable sidekick. But the heavy use of IT in this instance comes with a certain amount of subtle irony. Computers -- the very engines that keep the wheels of polluting big business turning -- also provide the most dynamic means of illustrating the downside to a conscious-free, consumption-hungry society.

It's obviously a bit of a reach to claim that computers are the engines of some impending ecological disaster. They are after all a vital tool for environmentalists, scientists and green-do-gooders the world over. But the insatiable approach to the purchase of new IT equipment could be seen as the most obvious example of the downside of a society fantastically geared to production and purchase but hopelessly inefficient at disposal.

The hard-wired desire for the latest, fastest, shiniest piece of kit means that every year 1.5 million PCs are dumped into landfills sites in the UK alone. According to research carried out by the UN, the majority of PCs that are considered to be ripe for disposal could go on to give up to another 6,000 hours of service.

But impending EU legislation is about to deliver a very real wake-up call to IT manufacturers and customers alike. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, due to be transposed into UK law in August, will require manufacturers to take more responsibility for disposal of old kit. According to analyst firm Gartner, this added responsibility could result in vendors having to raise their prices by around £50 to soak up the extra costs of recycling and disposal.

Trying to get vendors such as Dell or HP to admit that price hikes might be in the offing is, as you'd imagine, nigh on impossible. They are playing a waiting game and are basically refusing to discuss the ramifications of WEEE until the draft copy of the directive is released next week. However, it is clear from talking with both companies that they are taking the issue seriously and are extremely clued up on what some might regard as a peripheral issue to the industry up to now. Both were able to provide very competent spokespeople on the issue with very short notice -- a sure sign that the wagons are being circled in case the EU decides to turn the environmental thumbscrews.

Further evidence that HP, Dell and the other PC manufacturers are taking the issue of disposal seriously was provided by a recent report from the exotically titled US environmental group, The Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition. According to the SVTC, Dell has turned itself round from being an environmental pariah last year to leading the PC manufacturer pack when it comes to green issues. Key to this change in form is the decision to discontinue using prison labour for breaking down machines -- undoubtedly more fun than smashing rocks but not exactly the best advert for a greener, cleaner Dell.

Ultimately the key to cleaning up the disposal process is to clean up manufacturing in the first place. The replacement of CRT monitors, packed with lead, with thinner, more lead-light LCD equivalents seems to be step in the right direction. Also new EU legislation due to be introduced in 2006 will ban the use of neuro-toxic chemicals -- deca-BDE -- used in the UK to make the casings of most PCs and televisions. In a recent report from the Computer Take-Back Campaign, high levels of these potentially harmful substances were found in the dust swiped from computers. The group claims that there is no safe dose associated with these chemicals as they are a bio-accumulative substance and build up in the body over time.

While vendors are forced to clean up their act, those in charge of large-scale IT purchases must focus on the total life-cycle of equipment -- disposal decisions will be as critical as those concerned with buying. An industry hard-wired to focus on progress is being forced to think about the legacy it is leaving behind. Watch this space.