Environmental Sustainability

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?

9 comments

  1. Stephen Rahn says:

    This is some good food for thought. I am a bit ashamed tyo say that I haven’t given much thought to the environmental aspects of the computing infrastructure of the university where I work, and I can’t say that I have heard any discussion of it from the school systems we assist. Perhaps I will set out to start some dialogue in that area.

    On a somewhat related note, I found a good article regarding computer noise. http://tinyurl.com/l7p6x

  2. Jim Heynderickx says:

    I think it’s worth considering the issue of home computers vs. school computers. From a broader perspective, if a person has a desktop at home (used x hours a week) and a school-provided or required laptop (used x hours a week), how could a solution be worked out so that one computer served both roles?

    The main issue is privacy– we provide school-owned computers to faculty, but warn them that their own software can’t be installed on it, or that their side-businesses can be run on it. In the future, maybe we need a broader solution that would offer funds to faculty to buy their own computers that were given access to school resources. That way, they would inherit choice and responsibility for maintenance, but also the ability to have privacy and one computer for home and school use.

    Even if this was just phased in slowly, it would help. We do have faculty on campus who bring their own computers to school, and pass on laptops we would provide.

  3. Jim Heynderickx says:

    Sorry, the comment above should have read "side-businesses can’t be run on it."

    Thanks!

    Jim H

  4. rkassissieh says:

    It’s interesting that you are suggesting a direction that is the opposite of the present trend of more schools providing school-owned laptops to teachers as standard equipment.

    How many faculty have this situation with side businesses where they really need a separate personal computer? In the past, I have noticed that the opposite happens. Once a teacher is accustomed to receiving a laptop from school, they let their home computer age, die, and then don’t replace it!

    Is it true that an individual cannot install personal software on a school-owned computer? As long as they abide by their license agreement that they purchased, I don’t see how that would be a problem.

    Thanks for the suggestion!

  5. Jim Heynderickx says:

    If they don’t replace their home computers, then you’ve won the battle.

    In our case we emphasize that the school laptop isn’t a replacement for their home computers, and we frown upon massive personal photo, music and video collections on the school-owned machines. (Some of each is fine, but it shouldn’t become their home media center.)

    Another issue is taxes. Lots of teachers use TaxCut and other software, but not on school machines. (Privacy issue again, and licenses for software.)

    As our teachers become more savvy, I wonder if the trend won’t be away from the school-provided systems. It’s mostly our power-users who opt out of the school laptops, because they want more than the standard system we offer. In general, they can maintain their own machines as well.

    In the long run, this isn’t a bad goal to gradually move toward. The only bad part is that I haven’t figured out a way to compensate faculty who "buy their own" in an equitable way. Maybe a $250 to $300 a year grant would do…

    I haven’t thought of the downsides of home ownership too much either, unless we get into the realm of expensive software for which the 80/20 rule would no longer apply.

    Anyway, just thinking out loud. In the end, though, I’d like to stop being the hardware supplier and maintainer. In terms of sustainability, the more a computer is used (hours per week) and for more roles (home and work), the better.

  6. rkassissieh says:

    That’s a good point about power users buying their own computers. If power users are the trend leaders, then perhaps the number of users supplying their own computers will continue to increase in the future. However, if ubiquitous use is an important goal, then the school will have to facilitate purchases at some level. I am reminded of your comparison between OES’ middle and upper school laptop "programs."

  7. rkassissieh says:

    Oops. It appears that we have turned a conversation about environmental sustainability into a discussion of laptop programs and school vs. home ownership. Returning to the point, laptop programs produce more waste, because they are replaced more often and (as Jim has pointed out) often result in a family owning more computers than they would otherwise own. Let’s ensure that we are getting great use out of these laptops and constantly use the computers to reduce paper waste in order to justify their impact.

  8. Tom Hoffman says:

    You could get <a href="http://www.sun.com/tryandbu…">some of these servers</a> and run thin clients off them. That’d be very efficient.

  9. rkassissieh says:

    Thanks, Tom. I like this solution for a computer lab and not so much for administrative staff users. Also, I am waiting until the practical limit for the number of workstations you may run off a single terminal server increases substantially. From what I understand, the current limit is about 10 clients.