NEW YORK--There's a long way to go to make consumer electronics an environmentally sustainable industry and sometimes the best path isn't always clear.
Panelists and attendees at the Greener Gadgets conference here last week discussed the many ways that manufacturers could claim a greener product--a recycling program, less hazardous materials, and, increasingly, the embedded carbon footprint.
But to manufacturers--and the consumers themselves--what constitutes "green" is still a work in progress.
"I think that people are more focused on doing the right thing but there is very little for them to hang that on," said Ken Rother, the president and chief operating officer of environmental consumer Web site Treehugger.
Rother said that many Treehugger readers appear particularly concerned with carbon emissions so they would welcome standard ways to report how much energy use is embedded in a product.
But it's difficult to measure that carbon footprint in electronics cost effectively because the consumer electronics industry has a complex supply chain with multiple tiers of suppliers, said Aaron Dallek, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Planet Metrics, which makes software to help businesses measure their carbon emissions.
"The big question is how do companies approach this because...the ability to measure products' (carbon footprint) is not very good," Dallek said. However, it is clear is that designing products with fewer parts and materials reduces the embedded energy content, he said.
Representatives from different companies said that many decisions made in the name of environmental sustainability, such as reducing materials and packaging, reduce carbon emissions and save money.
For example, excessive plastic packaging for a small USB key simply adds cost to the manufacturer in terms of material and the embedded energy, said Ron Gonen, the CEO of RecycleBank, which runs municipal programs to reward consumers with coupons to recycle more.
Dell's decision to use LED screens in all its laptops by next year has a number of benefits, said Michael Murphy, senior manager of environmental affairs at Dell. Because they are 43 percent more energy efficient than current screens, batteries can last twice as long. It also eliminates the use of mercury.
The thinner screens also mean less packaging and less weight--which makes it "cheaper for everyone" in Dell's supply chain, he said.
Conflicted about regulations
Greener product designs aren't only driven by cost savings, though. IT and consumer electronics companies are facing a growing number of environmental regulations, notably European recycling and hazardous material mandates called WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive).
For Intel, meeting the RoHS directive meant taking lead out of most of its chips. The company exceeded the minimum standard because it saw that it could get a "marketing advantage" that way, said Stephen Harper, director of environment and energy policy at Intel, who spoke on a panel.
"We need a combination of minimum standards and we also have to allow for competition that will drive competition beyond the minimum standards," Harper said.
At the same time, Harper and Dell's Murphy complained some regulations are ineffective. The EPEAT standard, which mandates that government agencies purchase energy-efficient computer gear, is only followed by 11 percent of agencies in their procurement practices, Harper said.
Also, regulators need to harmonize regulations across regions and do a cradle-to-grave lifecycle analysis of environmental benefits when setting rules. For example, removing all lead from electronics could lead manufacturers to use equally hazardous alternatives, Harper said.
E-waste and recycling
The conference also highlighted the issue of electronics recycling as a way for manufacturers to be more environmentally responsible. But even though more than half of consumer electronics companies now offer recycling and take-back programs now, an estimated 98 percent of electronics are still not recycled.
Recycle Bank's Gonen said that society needs to attach a monetary price to waste, either through a fine or by rewarding consumers to recycle. Counting on consumers to "do the right thing" to protect the environment will keep recycling rates low, he argued.
"When you don't recycle your e-waste, there is a major environmental cost and a major economic cost," he said. "That is the way to motivate people. But first you need to give them the infrastructure, the information on how to do it."
Retailers, too, have a big role in recycling and in making the electronics industry more environmentally sustainable in general, said Parker Brugge, the vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability at the Consumer Electronics Association.
"There is a growing, very small percentage of consumers interested in eco-friendly products. What will really drive change is when retailers demand it," he said.
The keynote speaker, inventor Saul Griffith, argued that designers need to start to make "greener electronic object d'art" or heirloom products that can last decades as a Rolex watch or Mont Blanc pen does.
Dell's Murphy argued that Dell already designs its products for long life and modular upgrades and that company already runs a large refurbishing business. But other speakers conceded that designing products that last decades would represent a completely different way of designing and selling products in high tech.
But even without heirloom products, the industry can still do quite a bit more to be greener, taking advantage of new technologies in the process, said Carl Smith, president and CEO of Rechargeable Battery Recycling.
"Green is not a yes or no question--it's an attribute," Smith said. "It's a balance between technology advancement and meeting our environmental goals."