Meet the companies making ethical computers
We’re all in this together: we have one planet, and one chance to save it, which is why the UK has signed up for CRC (the Carbon Reduction Commitment). Covering all forms of energy, CRC aims to trim our greenhouse gas emissions by 60% from their 1990 levels by the time we hit mid-century.
But what’s in it for you? Some industry experts argue that the answer is simple: money. Being green, they say, isn’t just about feeling good. It can have a quantifiable impact on your bottom line – in terms of both saving capital expenditure and reducing ongoing costs. Computers built to last must be replaced less often, while those designed to conserve resources will cut your cooling and power bills, as well as contributing to the goals of CRC.
UK-based Aleutia specialises in just this kind of PC. Built primarily for use in the developing world, where access to reliable grid-based power is frequently just a dream, its T1 and R50 fanless PCs are designed to sip rather than gulp, and run on solar cells.
The company makes most of its sales in Africa, but not all of them. “We’ll often sell these PCs to software firms that want a little locked-down micro-PC that’s low power so they can leave it running 24/7, and they’ll load their mini-project on it,” says Aleutia founder Mike Rosenberg. “So, it might be monitoring a turbine or used for geosystems, for example. Customers such as this hook up our PCs and keep them on for a year.” Even Daft Punk, the French electro-band, has recently bought Aleutia kit for use in music production.
In Europe, the palm-sized PCs ship with a mobile phone-style adapter, or can run on a 12V battery, with standby, idle and peak power consumption at only 2.6W, 10W and 18W respectively. Despite this, Rosenberg claims that clever choice of components mean they’re up to the task of running the £5,000 design applications that Aleutia uses to design its new products.
A very different take
Another UK company that’s long understood the appeal of green computing is VeryPC, whose Broadleaf range is built with sustainability at its core.
Managing director Andrew Hopton sees the benefits of building machines that tread lightly where power consumption is concerned, and urges us to also consider what our next purchase is made from, how it can be recycled and where it was assembled.
“For packaging, we use a box factory that’s a kilometre down the road, and the [computer] chassis is made in the UK and anodised in the region, so we can keep the product manufacture on a local level,” he says. “That way we can review our production chain, try to control it and understand how our machines are being made; and ensure there are no labour or human-rights issues.”
Local engineering cuts down on transport costs and road pollution, which is one reason why Aleutia manufactures its kit in Birmingham, and is careful to select components that best fit their final use.
“The lowly desktop has remained a steel and plastic tower [for years],” said Rosenberg, explaining his frustration at rivals selling kit based on headline figures rather than actual impact. “They’re still very drab and based on a basic processor combined with a 500GB hard drive, and it’s frustrating to me that the performance impact of going to an SSD… is so much more profound than just upgrading from an i3 to an i5.”
Rosenberg also believes that the traditional PC is designed for forced obsolescence. “After a few years, if it’s donated to Africa, it lasts a couple of weeks before the hard drive breaks down due to high temperatures and the PC succumbs to dust because they’re designed for cost rather than reliability.”
Not so with Aleutia’s palm-sized machines. With no moving parts and only passive cooling, courtesy of clever copper casing, they’re ventless, fanless and immune to the effects of dust and grit. This is important, as Aleutia runs a buy-back scheme for western customers, returning 5% of the purchase price for every machine it takes back. It then refurbishes them, extending the original five-year warranty by a further two years, before shipping them out to Africa, at cost.
A question of waste
What if your old kit isn’t suited to that kind of second life? VeryPC’s Hopton refers us back to WEEE, the Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment directive that came into force in 2003.
“Most companies have a contract with a WEEE disposal company that will collect an old machine and dispose of it through a government-authorised facility. In the commercial realm, there’s a big market for refurb computers… essentially the computer comes in [to a third-party integrator] and they sell it on as a second-hand machine.”
Much of the kit – particularly kits that has previously been leased – ends up in India or Eastern Europe, while some of VeryPC’s education customers receive £25 per unit from upcycling firms that refurbish the machines.
When it comes to data, Hopton has some words of reassurance. “Hard drives get shredded for data security and the people who shred them have a machine that separates out the different metals, which are sold on to recycling companies.”
Like Aleutia, VeryPC has long understood the benefit of thinking green at the outset, rather than at the end of a computer’s life. So what does Hopton believe we should be looking for when greening our procurement chain? For starters, discrete components. While the all-in-one screen/PC combo might be a great space saver, a minor fault in one small part of it can require the disposal of the whole unit – screen, boards, drives and all. “With our own desktops, all of the individual bits are modular so if someone does break it, it’s all replaceable; so we won’t need to replace the whole product.”
“With our [desktop] Broadleaf range we were one of the first to use halogen-free cabling instead of PVC, so if it ever did end up in landfill it wouldn’t leach toxins, and we use Intel because of its commitment to conflict-free [materials].”
Power still has its part to play. Hopton advises opting for 80 Plus power supplies where possible, which have 80% energy efficiency. Aleutia’s Rosenberg agrees. “The biggest problem is not the PC but the cost of providing power.”
Energy security is less certain now than it has been for several decades, and renewables aren’t yet rolling out at any great speed in Britain. But, we’re getting there, slowly, with prices falling year on year and products such as these making it a viable power option at last.
It may just be that buying a longer-life, sustainable machine today will do more than just save you money on energy: it might last long enough to still be running when the first solar panels arrive on your own building.