On Being Green

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© 2008 Cynthia Golden. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 43, no. 3 (May/June 2008): 88

On Being Green

Cynthia Golden

Cynthia Golden, Vice President of EDUCAUSE, leads the association's work in professional development.

Comments on this article can be sent to the author at cgolden@educause.edu and/or posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

Over ten years ago, I watched with dismay while the physical plant staff loaded hundreds of no longer useful, fully depreciated Macs and PCs into a dumpster, to be hauled off to a landfill somewhere in Pennsylvania. The lab managers had spent months trying to find a recycling solution for these machines, yet other than an African mission that wanted a few, there were no takers. It was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had as an IT professional. Having grown up during the oil crisis of the 1970s and instilled with a commitment of caring for our environment, I was taught to keep the thermostat at 68 degrees, to turn off the lights, to treat the earth gently, and to recycle whenever possible. Watching those computers be carted away, I felt guilty about what we were doing, and I felt powerless.

The inability to effectively recycle this hazardous waste is one of a multitude of challenges feeding today’s “green” computing initiatives in government, industry, and higher education. The very real pressures of global warming, excessive energy consumption, and overdependence on fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, pose a serious threat to the planet. We must find ways to reduce our energy consumption, to provide power through alternative methods, and to deal with the electronics we produce, use, and discard: the “e-waste.” IT divisions in higher education can and should take a leadership role in improving the sustainability of their campuses by following environmentally friendly and responsible computing practices.

Consider the grid. The concept of “cloud computing” has the potential—through server virtualization, resource sharing, and co-location of equipment—to reduce utility consumption and save on the costs of space and power.

Purchase green. The impact of products on the environment should be considered as part of the purchasing process. The collective purchasing decisions of higher education IT divisions can affect the market. One such decision might be to buy energy-efficient equipment from manufacturers that want to reduce toxins and waste and conserve materials.

Donate. Prevent the waste in the first place: a decommissioned PC can be of real value to others. Many campuses have relationships with charities that will redistribute used computers in developing countries. Donation centers have sprung up all around the country, and state and municipal websites often provide connections.

Recycle. If equipment cannot be donated for reuse or repair, then it should be recycled. Major electronics manufacturers and retailers offer take-back or trade-in programs. Consider campus-wide programs for recycling printer cartridges and paper. Many retailers have programs that provide credit for every cartridge returned, and paper recycling programs are becoming more common and easier to implement.

Educate. Conservation efforts go hand in hand with education. Several months ago, the “Think Before You Print” icon started showing up in the signature lines of colleagues’ e-mail messages. This campaign is an attempt to reduce paper use by asking people to carefully consider whether they need to see the data on paper (the average worker now prints over twice what was printed in 1980). Using recycled paper and duplex printing helps too.

Provide alternative work arrangements for staff. Widespread access to broadband means that more people have the opportunity to occasionally or regularly dispense with long commutes in favor of working from a home office. The idea of office “hotels,” where staff can sign up for office time when they need it, is increasing in popularity in the corporate world.

Consider carbon offsets. The practice of making a financial investment to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, electricity use, and other sources has moved beyond the large compliance market to include individuals and organizations. Though controversy exists about the practice itself and the various methods of producing the offsets, voluntary purchases of offsets are increasing.

Many institutions have had comprehensive green campus programs in place for years. One example is the University of Colorado at Boulder. Its Blueprint for a Green Campus (http://ecenter.colorado.edu/blueprint06/), issued in 2000 and updated in 2004, involves the entire campus, the community, and the state in the ultimate goal of being a national leader in sustainable environmental practices. In January 2007, its student government passed a resolution to become the first student government in the nation to commit to climate neutrality. Another example is the University at Buffalo, SUNY, which has a nationally recognized energy conservation program (http://wings.buffalo.edu/ubgreen/) and publishes a very thorough guide to green computing.

Clearly, in 2008 there is no need to feel powerless in the face of the massive environmental problems we have created. But we do need to take action. Right away.