Guest Editorial - Green IT Not Only in Name

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The theme of this special issue of EQ, “IT Sustainability,” aligns with the theme of the November/December EDUCAUSE Review, “IT and the Greener Future.” The on-campus achievements and practical advice described by our authors directly address the issues raised by sustainability consultants Richard Hodges and Sarah Sorensen, as follows. —Editor

The integration of technology planning into institutional strategies, particularly for facilities, is critical to achieving sustainability goals. Technology vendors are beginning to promote their products with claims of environmental benefits, from reduced transportation impacts and building space to “de-materialization” and paperless instruction. All of these benefits are possible, but each has its own environmental costs.

Many technology components, although small, have a large environmental footprint:

“Electronics is one of the world’s largest manufacturing sectors, with social, economic, and ecological impacts on six continents across the planet. The production of electronics and computer components contaminates the air, land, water, and human beings with nearly unrivalled intensity.”1

The devices that make up our interconnected global networks are material and energy intensive in manufacturing and distribution. In use they consume a significant, and rapidly growing, amount of energy. At the end of their short lives, our electronic tools become toxic waste.

While much attention has been paid to the “eco-footprint” of buildings and transportation, until recently little has been given to the negative environmental effects of technology systems. Sustainability programs and environmental responsibility initiatives rarely address technology systematically as part of the overall plan for reducing carbon emissions, energy consumption, material use and toxicity, and waste volumes. The rapidly increasing energy requirements to power electronics and the growing volumes of “e-waste” clearly indicate that greening technology systems is as important as greening the buildings they sit in.

Educational institutions need to have environmental assessment and management master plans for technology as part of their sustainability strategy. Those plans need to include:

  • Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) for buying greener products and creating incentives for the creation of more environmentally benign products
  • Energy management plans and monitoring systems for minimizing power consumption
  • System design processes that include environmental criteria as a base requirement for developing specifications for technology systems
  • Collection and disposal systems for electronic waste, universal waste, and technology-related solid waste
  • Criteria and systems for measuring, monitoring, and reporting on the environmental performance of technology initiatives and the organizations that support them
  • Educational programs for students, faculty, and administrators about environmentally responsible use and management of technology equipment

Technology systems are a valuable tool for education. Information and communications technology (ICT) is central to the content and delivery of education, as well as the physical environment in which education occurs. The environmental benefits of ICT, in carbon abatement and promoting greater overall resource efficiency, are substantial. However, they also need to be held to a green standard that reduces manufacturing, in use and waste impacts. In a globally competitive world of accelerating change, higher education institutions must find ways to harness the powerful currents of technology and environmental sustainability.

  1. Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Ted Smith, David A. Sonnenfeld and David Naguib Pellow, eds. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).