CEA Sustainability Report Shows Electronics Firms' Progress on Green Goals

CEA Sustainability Report Shows Electronics Firms' Progress on Green Goals

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) kicks off on Thursday, drawing tens of thousands of people from around the world to Las Vegas to explore the latest in technology.

In the run-up to a moment when all eyes are on the electronics industry, the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade group that puts on CES, released yesterday its second sustainability report, highlighting the progress that IT firms have made in reducing the environmental impacts across the lifecycles of our ubiquitous gadgets.

The report follows two years after the industry's first sustainability report, and offers a number of case studies from manufacturers and retailers alike that focus on energy use, packaging, e-waste and many of the other challenges that the industry faces.

Two years is a lifetime when it comes to consumer electronics, and Walter Alcorn, CEA's Vice President of Environmental Affairs and Industry Sustainability, said that there has been rapid progress on several areas of sustainability.

"On some of the green design issues, for example we've seen EPEAT now fully implemented, and that's a big step especially for B2B purchases of electronic products," Alcorn said. "Also, a lot has happened on the eCycling side: We now have more than 5,000 collection locations that are sponsored by companies in the CE industry where consumers can drop of old consumer electronics."

Although some of the findings in the new report that were groundbreaking in 2008 had become commonplace by 2010 -- Alcorn said EPEAT was a good example of that, with over 48 million EPEAT-certified products sold in the U.S. in 2009 -- e-waste is one area where companies are still breaking new ground.

The electronics industry as a whole recycled 200 million pounds of e-waste in 2009, and the CEA in its sustainability report urges electronics firms to use recyclers certified under one of the two competing e-waste recycling initiatives, R2 or e-Stewards.

Publishing a sustainability report for any industry is a complicated endeavor, but especially for one as notoriously secretive as the IT industry. Alcorn said that shining a light on member companies' efforts was a key part of the CEA's role.

"We provide an opportunity for companies to show their stuff, and to let other people know about the good things that they are doing," he said. "From an industry perspective, it's important to measure progress and to do it in a transparent way, because I think that transparency is key for motivating them."

Among the other findings of the latest sustainability report from the CEA:

Green packaging: Many consumer electronics companies are switching to renewable materials, including bio-based plastics, or recyclable materials instead of clamshell packaging and are looking to reduce the amount of packaging they use. For instance, one video service provider consolidated its shipments and decreased its use of cartons by more than one million in 2009 -- a 75 percent reduction from the previous year. In 2011, all of the providers’ products will be packed with 100 percent recyclable materials.

More efficient facilities: Many manufacturers have set ambitious goals for reducing GHG at their facilities. Meanwhile, other companies have launched efforts to cut power consumption at their data centers.

More energy-efficient products: According to the EPA, 27,000 CE product models currently meet Energy Star specifications. The average energy savings of Energy Star electronics devices range from 20 to 55 percent. An example of this progress is one semiconductor design company created a chip that can reduce its GHG by up to 40 percent by combining the processing and graphics processing units and the Northbridge chipset onto a single chip.

The report looks at success stories from the entire lifecycle of electronics, from green design to product transport to e-waste recycling. And one trend that Alcorn noted from the latest research can affect all three of those areas.

"The most noteworthy trend to me is the trend toward dematerialization, toward technologies that require fewer resources to make -- it's going from the old 200-pound console television from 20 years ago to the 56-inch LED set that you can mount on the wall," Alcorn said. "It's a situation where as miniaturization happens, it has positive implications throughout the life-cycles of these products, from fewer materials that have to be mined to lower costs to transport them, and then of course there's less of it to recycle because it weighs less."

These changes -- which are taking place across the electronics industry -- are not happening because of their environmental benefits, but because of the business benefits. And that makes the green improvements even more likely to continue.

The CEA's second sustainability report, "Inspiring Change," is available for download from GreenBiz.com.