More Steps Toward Eco-Friendliness: Lead-Free, Halogen-Free and Energy Efficiency

More Steps Toward Eco-Friendliness: Lead-Free, Halogen-Free and Energy Efficiency

Once driven largely by governmental regulations, companies are increasingly looking at the entire life cycle impact of their products and voluntarily identifying ways to reduce their environmental footprint.

For a consumer, attempting to sort through all of the statements, claims and green ads can be a daunting challenge. Even for those who practice in the environmental field, a full environmental assessment is extremely complex with processes such as lifecycle assessments requiring a year or more to completely develop.

For many IT products, a relatively quick and simple assessment can be completed by focusing on three primary areas: material content, energy consumption and end of life considerations. In addition, a few tools have emerged to make the analysis even simpler.

Material Content: Lead-free

Lead-based solder has been used in IT products since the industry's inception, constituting a fundamental building block of the manufacturing process. Although the environmental impacts of lead's use in electronics can be debated, the environmental and health impacts of lead itself are well studied and understood. As discussions of material content bans began in Europe in the late 1990s, electronics companies began to research and develop lead-free solutions.

By July 2006, the effective date of the European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, the use of lead in electronics had been greatly reduced by electronic component manufacturers.

Today, many electronic products carry a lead-free logo or designation. It should be noted, however, that not all "lead-free" products are created equal.

At times, "lead-free" is used interchangeably with "RoHS compliant." Compliance with RoHS is not synonymous with lead-free since the European Directive allows the use of lead and other heavy metals in exempt applications. Companies are beginning to voluntarily phase out the use of these exemptions.

Intel's recent lead-free 45nm product offerings are a prime example. In these products, lead has been completely removed from the "flip chip" application (an exempt application under RoHS). "Flip-chip" is the use of tiny amounts of solder to affix the semiconductor die to the substrate found inside the semiconductor package.

The packaging technology for Intel's 45nm high-k metal gate family of processors uses a copper column "bump" and a tin/silver/copper solder alloy shown here to replace the previously used lead/tin solder alloy to attach the silicon die to the package substrate.

Material Content: Halogen-Free

Moving beyond lead-free and E.U. RoHS, IT companies are publicly committing to reduce the use of certain halogens in their products -- specifically, certain brominated flame retardants, phthalates and polyvinylchloride (PVC).

The debate about the benefits or potential harm of these chemicals is very active with producers advocating their benefits and environmental groups calling for their phase out.

Flame retardants are used in plastic parts, circuit boards and other components for fire safety. Phthalates are used as softeners in plastics and PVC is a common material used in the cords and cables of electronic equipment.

Brominated flame retardants were first phased out of large plastic parts driven by the introduction of voluntary eco-labels, such as Germany's Blue Angel" label. The use of brominated flame retardants in printed circuit boards, ICs, and other components has taken more time due to the limited availability of alternatives and the technical challenges associated with these applications. As evidenced by Intel's 45nm halogen-free announcement, the electronics supply chain is now finding alternatives to some of these elusive applications.

Energy Efficiency

Although lead-free, halogen-free and e-waste often grab headlines for "green" electronics, for many IT products, the energy use of the product over its lifetime represents the largest portion of its environmental footprint. As a result, there are multiple initiatives underway to curb the electricity use of electronic products.

Regulatory and quasi-regulatory initiatives such as the E.U.'s Energy-using Products (EuP) Directive and the U.S. EPA's ENERGY STAR program are examples of such. Voluntary industry-led programs such as the Climate Savers Computing Initiative and The Green Grid seek to curb the energy consumption of PCs and data centers, respectively.

Finally, individual IT companies are increasingly offering and marketing their most energy-efficient models to the public. Examples include, but are not limited to, Dell, HP, Sun and Intel.

Interestingly, as the world grapples with climate change and the challenges associated with improving energy efficiency and reducing global warming gas emissions, several recent studies suggest that IT products are tools which can help address the problem.

End-of-Life Considerations

As the number of IT products increase and their life spans decrease, it becomes increasingly important to have solutions for proper reuse, recycling or disposal of the obsolete products. Laws, or proposed laws, requiring the collection and recycling of IT products and other electronics are now common place in many parts of the world. In parallel many companies including PC manufacturers are voluntarily collecting and recycling their products, some programs at little to no cost to the consumer.

Participation in the EPA's Plug-In To eCycling Partners campaign continues to grow each year. Innovative initiatives such as Rethink allow consumers to sell, donate or recycle their obsolete electronics.

In addition to these programs, the electronics recycling business is growing rapidly providing many additional outlets for electronic waste. Such growth is not without its challenges. Critics are calling for additional focus, claiming that PCs and other electronics are not being properly recycled but often shipped to low-cost geographies where recycling practices are questionable.

Available Tools

OK, enough of the details. You want to purchase a green PC -- now what?

There are several options out there to help you with your choices. To keep things simple, here are three useful tools:

  1. ENERGY STAR: Products that carry the ENERGY STAR logo are more energy efficient than their peers as outlined by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definitions and test methods. Since energy consumption makes up the largest portion of most IT products' environmental footprint, this is a good place to start.

    PROS: Simple -- look for the label. Also covers a broad range of electronic products. CONS: Limited to energy consumption. The label does not set criteria for material content or end-of-life solutions.
  2. Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT): Although developed as a tool for institutional purchasers of computers, the tool is open to the public and can be used by the general consumer.

    PROS: Simple -- bronze, silver, gold. How "green" do you want your PC? CONS: Targeted at large institutional buyers so consumer models may not be listed. Currently limited to PC products : desktops, notebooks and monitors.
  3. Climate Savers Smart Computing Product Catalog: A list of 300 Climate Savers Computing-compliant products ranging from desktop PCs and laptops to servers, power supplies, power management software, and others.

    PROS: Simple -- searchable by product, manufacturer or region. Aimed at both institutional and individual consumers. CONS: Does not list specific energy-efficiency information for each product. So far, limited number of manufacturers represented.

For more information on Intel's lead-free and other eco-computing innovations, visit Intel.com.

Todd Brady is the Corporate Environmental Manager for Intel Corp. In this role, he leads Intel's corporate-wide environmental programs and strategies. Since joining Intel in 1995, Todd has led a wide range of environmental programs, from regulatory compliance and design for environment at semiconductor and assembly test manufacturing sites to product-related environmental initiatives.