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The “Greening” of the Electronics Supply Chain

April 21, 2017
More firms are regularly practicing eco-friendly activity, including recycling, making energy-efficient choices, and producing more eco-friendly products.

Across all industries, most companies understand that nearly everything they do and every move they make has at least some impact on our environment. The electronics supply chain is no exception and, in fact, has recently become a focal point for organizations and companies that are intent on reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.

 Perhaps that’s because the electronics manufacturing process and supply chain makes up anywhere from 41% to 80% of a typical firm’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And energy creates the dominant carbon footprint impact for today’s electronic devices, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

 Determined to shrink that carbon footprint—particularly on the customer/end-use side of the equation—the DOE administers a Superior Energy Performance (SEP) program focused on sustainability within the manufacturing stage of the electronics supply chain. Using ISO 50001 Energy Management Systems, for example, SEP helps manufacturers create internal policies, procedures, and tools used to track and improve energy performance—thus reducing both energy usage and emissions.

 Stepping up to the Plate
According to a recent sustainability survey from Staples, more than 90% of businesses practice some form of eco-friendly activity regularly, including recycling, making energy-efficient choices, and/or shopping for more eco-friendly products. In addition, 89% of businesses and consumers believe that eco-friendly products are the same or higher quality than non-eco products. And while 74% of consumers recycle containers made of glass, metal, or plastic, just 51% recycle electronics at the end of those products’ useful lives.

 But even if they aren’t all recycling their electronics, companies are putting more effort into procuring sustainable options. In March, for example, Mission Support Alliance (MSA), CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company (CH2M), and Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) were all recognized as leaders in the procurement and use of sustainable information technology products by the Green Electronics Council and managers of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) label.  

 Mission Support Alliance (MSA) purchased EPEAT products (a ranking system that helps firms compare and select desktop computers and office equipment based on those products’ environmental attributes) for use by the three companies on a specific project. These efforts will result in a reduction of 363.5 metric tons of primary materials; the avoidance of 1.6 metric tons of water pollutant emissions; the avoidance of disposal of 2.6 metric tons of hazardous waste; and a savings of more than one million kilowatt hours of electricity—enough to power 81 average-sized homes for a year.

 Original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are also stepping up to the plate and helping to support the sustainable electronics trend. In Why OEMs are bringing more recycled plastics into devices, Jerry Powell highlights how EPEAT and other eco-labeling initiatives are helping boost the use of recycled content in plastics used for electronics. Citing HP’s Jason Ord’s presentation at the recent Plastics Recycling Show Europe, Powell writes that HP is finding its best success in the use of recycled plastic in commercial flat-panel displays.

 “Ord noted it’s easier to use recycled plastic in this product because it’s black and because flat-panel displays are less affected by cosmetic requirements,” Powell writes. “About 80% of HP’s current commercial display output contains post-consumer plastic resin.” And, according to HP’s latest sustainability report, the company incorporates e-plastics from used ink and toner cartridges back into new cartridges.  

 And in January, the EPA handed out accolades for sustainable electronics to electronics manufacturers, retailers, and brand owners for their contributions in diverting electronics from landfills. Honored during an event at CES 2017 in Las Vegas, the recipients included Best Buy, Dell, LG Electronics, Samsung, Sony, and Sprint, among others. Combined, the winners diverted a total of more than 256,000 tons of used electronics from landfills in 2015—the equivalent to taking 129,000 passenger vehicles off the road for one year.

 More Sustainable Electronics, Please
In assessing whether the electronics industry can actually shrink its manufacturing footprint, GreenBiz’s Niclas Rydell writes that the industry has switched its mission from “simply creating electronics that worked” in the late-1990s to one more focused on emissions controls and health/safety protocols. In return, Rydell says companies have gained competitive advantage, the ability to attract and retain top talent, better risk mitigation, and reduced costs.

 And despite the current uncertainty over the future of environmental regulation, he says one point remains clear: “If you’re in the electronics business and want to remain there and thrive as the boom continues, it’s time to embrace sustainability and social responsibility.”

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About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.