Environmental sustainability was the focus of a faculty/staff discussion on the first day of meetings. Small groups of employees were asked to brainstorm ways to move toward the ultimate goal of a 100% environmentally sustainable campus. Much of the discussion was provided by Mike of the grounds crew, who explained his department’s initiatives in plant cultivation, re-use of wooded material, composting, and recycling.
Toward the end of his explanation, Mike hit the nail on the head regarding the balance between services provided and sustainability. Given the amount of water required to maintain grassed lawns even during the summer when school is out of session, would the school community support an initiative to plant water-conserving, indigenous plants instead?
The same argument applies to computer technologies. We provide 600 computers to about 900 users. Each teaching faculty member and upper school student receives his or her own laptop computer. We set up and configure dozens of servers and network devices to provide the highest quality of computer access possible within the school’s generous constraints.
Most computers we purchase have two or three lives within the school. Some have four or five. New computers typically go to the most intensive users. When they provide insufficient capacity or speed for these users, then they cascade down toward other users with less intensive computing requirements. The few computers that are actually not of use to anyone within the school go to Rummage, our annual sale of used goods, thereby finding yet another life elsewhere. Our facilities department sends computers that no longer function to FreeGeek, a refurbishing and recycling center. In the best of cases, the machines are used by those learning computer repair skills, brought back to life, and then distributed to deserving organization and individuals. Other equipment is properly recycled, so that their raw materials can be re-used and toxics put in a safe place.
Our school community expects and enjoys a high level of computing operation. Should we purchase fewer machines in the name of environmental sustainability? What impact do the faculty and student laptop programs have on the environment? Do the benefits of these programs outweigh the costs? Probably yet, but it is worth considering the question.
Aside from scaling back our program, what else can the Catlin Gabel technology program do to practice better environmental stewardship? Instead of sending broken machines to another computer refurbishing center, we could launch our own. Catlin students could bring discard machines back to working order and donate them to people or organizations that need them. One teacher would like us to make duplex printing the standard across campus. We could make a stronger effort to replace paper distribution with electronic communication. We could replace more CRT displays with lower energy-consumption LCDs (is it worth the resulting generation of waste?). We could implement printing quotas or at least provide users with printer volume feedback.
Wouldn’t it be great if a computer manufacturer produced a “green” computer? It could use fewer toxic materials than other computers. The case and other components could be made from recycled materials. It could use slightly older, more universally available components so that there was a larger stock to draw from. It could draw less energy than it peer machines. It could come with instructions for disassembly and proper disposal (I am reminded of the HP return address labels that ship with every printer cartridge).
How do you handle the conflict between high-end technology use and the subsequent generation of computer waste? What is your tech department doing to make its practices more environmentally friendly?