Friday 21 May 2010

The Environmental Effects of Printing

Global Action Plan are partnering with the University of East London in delivering an environmental behaviour change programme surrounding staff printing.  This project is being funded by the JISC who do a great job supporting research projects in UK Universities. 

One of the interesting things about the project is that we are looking at communicating more of the environmental costs of printing to UEL staff.

Most people are aware of the destruction of forestry involved in traditional logging operations.  Up to 42% percent of the global wood harvest goes to the paper and pulp industry (Abromovitz and Mattoon, Worldwatch Paper: Paper Cuts, p. 20, 1999).  UEL has already taken a great proactive step in using recycled paper across the campus which significantly reduces the number of trees required to be harvested.  This means less pressure on forests and the species which rely on them.

What people are less aware of are the other environmental effects the paper and pulp industry has.

Paper production is a large consumer of water, due to soaking of the pulp fibers.  In OECD countries the industry was the single largest industrial consumer of water (OECD Environmental Outlook, p. 218)  The waste water then has a variety of chemicals in it, and this takes further processing to remove, not all of it can be and different countries have different levels of environmental legislation controlling this.

Paper and pulp production is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, being the third greatest industrial greenhouse gas emitter in the OECD (OECD Environmental Outlook, p. 218).  This is not including energy use in the running the printers.  Much of the energy used running printers is as they are sitting idle overnight, on weekends and holidays.  Even those which go into standby can still consume a significant amount, and not all do.  Xerox estimated printers were only in use 1-2% of the time.

Then we come to the manufacturing and disposal of printers.  Much of the energy a printer will ever use has been expended in its manufacture.  A range of substances are mined and extracted in its complex machinery, including substances from places in developing countries which don't always have good environmental or labour standards.  They are then transported large distances due to the globalised manufacturing process.  There are also problems with the model of production, especially cheap desktops, where due to the main revenue being from cartridge sales, the printers are priced at disposable levels, making repair much less cost effective than replacement.  Many go to land fill eventually, contributing to a global e-waste problem the UN described as a "mountain of e-waste", much of it ending up being disposed of in the third world, often with a complete absence of environmental or labour concerns.

Hundreds of millions of printer cartridges are purchased every year, and less than half of the cartridges themselves are reused or recycled (Infotrends 2009).  Even those that are returned to refilling depots are often not economically viable to refill and end up in land fill.  The cartridges themselves also use a range of chemicals in their manufacture, which leach out into the environment if not disposed of properly.  They also contribute to the worlds growing e-waste problem.

There are other aspects as well, pollution, paper packaging, transport, toxics from ink and toner, all of which need to be considered.   Taken together, if we can print less, print double sided or two to a page more often, share a printer with colleagues, use more environmentally sensitive paper and print equipment, we can reduce our ecological footprint, without effecting our quality of life.

Like many aspects of our lives, there are complex environmental consequences to our printing behaviours we need to consider in our actions.  The project to make printing more environmentally friendly at UEL will have positive benefits on our environment, far beyond UELs campuses.   This is why as an environmental charity Global Action Plan is happy to be involved in helping UEL take this important initiative.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Dematerialisation explained


I wanted to explain dematerialisation, because its a bit of Green IT jargon, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent.  I don't like jargon generally, it excludes people not "in on it" from understanding the debate, but seeing as it's part of the lexicon of Green IT we'll continue using it.

Dematerialisation is the process of changing material processes into forms with reduced resource requirements.  Using a "word processor", as they used to be called when there was competition in the market, was a form of dematerialisation.  Documents could be read, edited, shared, reviewed and stored all using a fraction of the physical space of non digital methods.  The materials being reduced were paper, filing cabinets, office space, couriers etc.   This was the basis of the much heralded "Paperless Office" of the 1980's.  Unfortunately office paper use has doubled since this time with the rise of an information rich culture, email and cheap printers, however the idea remains a solid environmental and efficiency proposition and there are many examples of effective moves away from paper based systems.  

The greenhouse gas emission comparison of purchasing music from a store and downloading it from the web was studied by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University.  They found that downloading it reduced emissions from between 40 and 80 percent depending on how the user purchased the music.  Travelling to a store and purchasing a packaged item is more carbon intensive than ordering a package from a distributor online.  We've gone another step now, with no packaging involved whatsoever, instead downloading it directly onto the device that will be playing it (this benefit is lessened if you then go and burn it to a CD anyway).  The tiny music playing devices commonplace now would have seemed impossibly futuristic to the record owners of only a couple of decades ago.  The interesting thing is that downloading digital music isn't generally done by consumers for environmental reasons; a new way of consuming has dramatically reduced it's footprint purely through efficiency and consumer demand.

This is the "zone" of Green IT, using IT to make things more efficient and lowering their environmental impact.

The UK has been pushing its online tax return system and tax payers have been resounding in their positive response to the programme.  Online filings rose by over 50% in 2008/2009 to encompass 5.8 million tax returns, over two thirds of the total filed.  According to figures based on the WWF report "Saving the Climate @ The Speed of Light", the UK has saved a total of 5882 tonnes of carbon from this initiative.  It's not only obvious things like the printing and posting of the tax returns which is reducing carbon, it's not needing armies of office workers and support staff managing typing in figures from hand written tax returns.  The end result, a cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly service.

Dematerialisation has completely changed modern offices and many business process along with it, and no doubt we still have a long way to go.  Films are already being trialed and soon no doubt the DVD case will be less ubiquitous in our living rooms, instead films will predominantly be downloaded and stored on our set top boxes.  From that point, once networks become reliably fast enough, we won't even bother storing them at home, they'll be stored on the computers of service providers and streamed to us on demand.

Books are a material good that has thus far, despite numerous attempts, resisted dematerialisation.  Part of the convenience is there, you can store thousands of books in a small amount of space, search them, go to exact places at the flick of a switch, even have them read themselves to you in broken American-English.  What hasn't quite been conquered is the equivalent experience of reading words on a page to the eye.  This hasn't been a solvable problem technically so far, but as large screen mobile phones are becoming the norm, I note people using them more to read during moments of downtime.  Perhaps in the not too distant future the cultural change of omnipresent mobile phones will overcome the technical obstacle of the pleasure of the printed word.  Technology is also catching up after many attempts, readers like the Kindle are starting to catch on, and they will no doubt continue to improve.

So perhaps books will become like CD's and DVD's, more absent from our homes and shelves, telling those who enter our space a little bit less about ourselves, whilst this cultural space of self expression is filled instead by mechanisms such as online social networking.  Enough philosophising...

How to identify dematerialisation opportunities

Dematerialisation is going on all around us and no doubt there is still a long way to go.  Identifying dematerialisation opportunities can be a huge efficiency and environmental move forward for your business, and can also be a lucrative business proposition.

The first step is to create a map/report of all the ways in which your business (or the part of the business you have influence over) touches the environment.  An environmental map/report is useful for many reasons, and can form the basis for an Environmental Management System like ISO14001 further down the track.  It should identify where external resources/materials are pulled into, and where are they being pushed out of, your organisation.  Your facilities/purchasing department should be a great help here, what you are spending money is a good place to find environmental impacts.

Next you need to approximate the negative environmental effects of each of the areas of impact you've identified.  Try to get at the hidden impacts of your processes.  For example we all know paper uses trees, but there are also a lot of chemicals used in it's manufacture, as well as water, all of this adding up to a toxic industry and one of the most green house gas intensive on the planet.  Environmental footprints can extend out forever though, so you'll need to limit the "scope" of your footprint somewhere to make your task manageable. (Learn more about scopes as they relate to carbon emissions)  To begin with concentrate on energy and resources you use directly and extend outwards in later phases.

You should then add less tangible but still important ways in which you could have an effect on the environment.  Could you potentially get involved in dematerialisation beyond your current business remit, could you have influence over other organisations or the public in some area of dematerialisation?  You may even come up with some potential business opportunities.

Once you've established this "map" of your organisations current and potential environmental impact, which as mentioned is useful far beyond dematerialisation, you then want to ascertain how much control you have over each of these elements.  Are they in your domain, your suppliers etc, are there regulatory requirements you have to conform with etc?  Hopefully you'll be starting to create a picture of what your major environmental impacts are, what you have the direct power to change, where you have influence over suppliers and delivery partners etc, and where change will be hard or impossible.

Your next step will be to figure out where your efforts can be best utilised in the initial phase of your dematerialisation programme.  Often some obvious areas for dematerialisation will make themselves apparent.  Marketing materials, business travel, conferences, meetings, accounts, internal communications, document archives etc.

One you've identified a handful of target areas, the next step is researching best practices in each of them. Try to get an idea of how other organisations have used dematerialisation to reduce their environmental impact across their businesses.  If an impact is through your suppliers, see if there are ways they or their competitors could provide less resource intensive services by the smart use of information technology.

The final and perhaps most important step is brain-storming.  You want to get people in your organisation thinking as creatively as possible about how you can change your practises as a business to remove some of the material impacts internally and externally.  As mentioned before potential business or philanthropic activities can come out of this phase.

Dematerialisation for your organisation will be an ongoing process as ideas and technologies change.  As the examples listed at the start of this post show, this is being done successfully all around us.  If your organisation can be a leader in dematerialisation, it will give you the opportunity to create competitive advantage, to make your business more efficient and to reduce your environmental impact.

Looking at the bigger picture, if we are to try to maintain or even improve living standards, whilst reducing our environmental impact as a society, dematerialisation is going to play an important part.  A knowledge and skills based society, where we decouple the economy from the environment, valuing experiences over things, has the potential to provide us with a more fulfilled and ecologically sustainable culture.  Hopefully you and your organisation can find a way to play its part.

For more information about dematerialisation (or dematerialization in US English) :
  • Wikipedia has a good brief introductory article (as ever) 
  • The Smart2020 report has a section on dematerialisation

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Carbon Footprinting and IT

Taiwan, Sweden and the UK governments have all recently made indications that they may move towards labelling goods with embedded carbon statistics.

Obviously such labelling is an idea who's time will shortly come, and as further evidence of this it was the topic of the Green Monday Sustainable ICT table I chaired last week.

How reliable is embedded carbon as a purchasing indicator though?  With something like a packet of crisps usage isn't a large factor in its carbon lifecycle.  Electronic goods are a very different proposal as energy usage is a large portion of their total footprint.  Because of the complexity of the components, computer equipment often moreso.

The Carbon Footprint of a Server

Let's take your average server as an example.  Almost every manufacturer would tell you that their server is energy efficient, but what does this mean?   At the moment there is no standard comparison between manufacturers, and even if there were, like processors a few years ago, designers could optimise for performance in benchmarking tests which might not reflect real work usage.

Manufacturers are always going to try to tweak results to favour themselves and if they didn't their marketing departments would no doubt have a word to say.  Recently at the Green Monday table, a data centre manager said that in his experience of purchasing machines, manufacturers could not be trusted to rate their own products, and the only way to really tell was to plug them in through an energy monitor and do your own comparisons.  OK if you have the budget and time for such comparisons, however not everyone does.

Servers come in a wide range of profiles as well, a 64 processor machine is going to be difficult to compare against an array of individual machines.  What is the expected lifetime of the components in a machine, and given that longevity how upgradeable is it?  These things also need to factor into the carbon footprint of a server.

Very different from a packet of crisps

Unlike a refridgerator which is basically just on and doing a well defined job, and can be rated on energy consumption and cooling efficiency,  computers run many different applications, at varying times, often simultaneously, many of them bespoke.  All this makes comparisons difficult.  If you are running a standard small office maybe you can make educated guesses, but for data centre operators it's not so easy.

The standard measure for data centre efficiency PUE doesn't even try to do this.  It just compares the energy which is used by the computers in the data centre, as opposed to that used on lighting, cooling etc.  This could be a rough indication of the efficiency of the lighting and cooling systems,  or alternatively the inefficiency of the computing systems, but it's not telling us much more.   What we'd really like to know is bang for buck, how much useful activity as defined by whatever computational thing we are trying to do, do we get for a given amount of energy expended.  A computer often uses between 60 and 70% of its energy even at low utilisation levels just doing housekeeping like keeping disks spinning and memory juiced up, increasing computation doesn't add proportionately that much to it's energy use, so utilisation is key.  This is why virtualisation is such a big win, using as much of the resources of individual machines as possible.  Gartner have come up with PPE as a better statistic, based on "rack density levels, server utilization levels, and energy consumption".  Again it's flawed, rack density doesn't tell us too much and restricts airflow, server utilization doesn't necessarily measure useful work, and energy consumption is only worthwhile if it is compared to useful work, but Gartner's measure is an improvement on PUE, and let's hope they further refine it.

The Carbon Footprint of  Programme

So different software services vary dramatically with the profile of memory, cpu and disk which they use, even when performing similar functions.  We can use some rules of thumb, we can profile for different classes of applications, we can optimise the hardware of different servers for different tasks to get maximum energy efficiency, so there is much useful we can do there.

What about the programmers though, so far they've gotten off lightly but perhaps we should be carbon footprinting their work too.  Once upon a time, programmers worked with limited resources, and tried to tune their applications in every way possible.  That has all changed in the latest generation of programmers.  During my IT degree at QUT, my lecturer John Hynd told us in one of our first programming lectures, that Moore's Law meant we shouldn't worry about efficiency.  (He also told us only one in three of us would get through the course successfully so best of luck to the other two guys whatever you are doing).  Computers were cheap, programmers were expensive and in short demand, everywhere in the world apaprently needed billions of programmers, and of course then the dot com bubble burst and the entire language and economics around IT changed.

Now we are running services, and are an intergral part of every business, no longer only in the role of a differentiator or competitive advantage, so cost is important.  Inefficient programming can mean more servers and more energy consumed.  A good programmer who programmes for efficiency is going to understand trade offs between design and performance, but many don't and this needs to be addressed.  Some universities are changing the way they teach, the University of East London is looking to integrate concepts of Green IT in their teaching programme, though whether that filters through to the programming classes we shall wait and see.

There is also the concept of capacity management, rightsizing resources.  Programmers and administrators tend to overspecify equipment as a matter of course.  If programmers can do a better job of understanding the usage of underlying resources, they can better understand the physical resources which will be required to house them.

Given a programmer does all this diligently, will we see software packages with carbon footprints on them or programmers with carbon aware stampes on their resumes?  Probably not, but who knows.


Some IT equipment is going to be hard to carbon footprint, too many variables, hardware and software configurations, come in to play.  The embedded carbon in it's manufacture is more tangible.  We need global standards for this sort of measurement, and either wide industry uptake or legislation mandating it before it can become universally useful, but it could provide a comparison for purchasing decisions.

For Home PCs we could provide some useful guidance to users.  Profiling a PCs idling energy usage, standard energy usage running web browsers and office apps, and energy usage running at full tilt with 3D immersive graphics intensive applications.  Users can pick the profile that suits them and it would help them make the right decision about the PC for them.

All in all perhaps taxation is a better strategy, something like removing VAT and replacing it with a carbon tax.  This would remove the need to understand the footprint from users and factor it into the price of goods.  Who will do the carbon accounting and what standards will they use is a question left to be answered.

At the moment carbon footprinting is purely voluntary, if you are a potato crisp company that measures its footprint and finds it is greater than your competitor, do you work to reduce it or just not publish it.  There are a lot of questions yet to be answered at the end of the carbon affluent age.  We have to work these things out somehow though, and if IT wants to think of itself as a forward looking industry, it needs to be leading the effort.