MIPS: Measuring environmental impact of IT

HP, EMI and Barclays are among a group of companies attempting to discover just how much effect technology has on the environment - and how e-business can help

MIPS is a widely recognised measurement of computing power; it refers to how many low-level machine code instructions a processor can execute in one second. But now a small group of big companies are using a different interpretation of the acronym to indicate the environmental impact of computers and e-business generally.

Firms as diverse as HP, EMI and Barclays are among those attempting to use the Material Input Per Service unit rating to discover how much impact their products and services have on the environment. In contrast to the computing-power MIPS rating, with the environmental MIPS rating, smaller is better.

Working out the MIPS for a particular 'service unit' -- which can be anything from paying a bill and downloading music to building a computer -- is not easy. It involves looking at all the materials and components used to deliver the service unit, and at the materials and components used to deliver those, and so on.

The project is being coordinated by Digital Europe, a pan-European study into the social and environmental effects of e-business and IT, supported by the EU. In the UK, it is coordinated by the not-for-profit organisation Forum for the Future.

Barclays, which is one of the biggest online banks in the UK with 3.5 million registered online users, is actively trying to move customers online. Doing so allows the bank to free up front-office staff to do more value-added work, according to Phil Case, group environmental director for Barclays.

Through its partnership with Digital Europe, Barclays was also interested to learn how online banking affected the environment. "We were trying to find out how much more environmentally friendly online banking is compared to traditional banking," said Case.

The bank took the simple process of paying a bill as its service unit. Paying a bill by cheque, said Case, required the movement of 2.87kg of materials. Paying online required the movement of 0.26kg -- making the MIPS rating for bills paid online a tenth that of the MIPS rating for bills paid in the traditional way. However, Case said, these figures are still preliminary: for instance, the figure for online payment does not include the environment impact of the servers required to process the transactions, or the electricity required to run those servers.

A similar process was undertaken at EMI, where the distribution of 56 minutes of music was chosen as the service unit. Kate Dunning, vice president of environmental affairs at EMI, said that to press a music CD and get it to a retail outlet required the movement of 2.39kg of materials. Buying a CD online appears to be more environmentally friendly, said Dunning, with a MIPS rating of 1.45kg. Downloading 56 minutes of music over the Internet has a MIPS rating of 0.75kg for the download itself, or 1.32kg if it is then burnt onto a CD. All three methods are environmentally preferable to buying CDs in a shop, said Dunning, although, she added: "There were many assumptions we had to make -- these are still preliminary, incomplete results."

The difficulties in working out a MIPS rating are illustrated by HP, which, although involved in the initiative, has been unable to produce what it feels are satisfactory figures for even the humble PDA -- let alone a PC or a server. Following its acquisition of Compaq earlier this year, HP is now the biggest computer manufacturer in the world. Zoe McMahon, environmental officer at HP, said: "Only a section of the life cycle for a handheld PC has been mapped. There is a very complex upwards supply chain. We have looked at the materials used, but for calculating MIPs for the energy used it is difficult to know where to start."

Nevertheless, said McMahon, HP is looking at how products can be designed to be more environmentally friendly. Initiatives include making IT equipment more energy efficient, and cutting down on the bill of materials used to build them. The company's printer toner recycling programme, which has been running for ten years, is now online, noted McMahon: customers can order packaging that can be used to return spent cartridges.

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