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A "Green" New Year’s Resolution for IT Staff

Earlier this week, I and some colleagues met with a University of Michigan task force to talk about what kinds of performance indicators the university should define, measure, and periodically report regarding its progress toward being a more sustainable institution. Preparing for that meeting has got me thinking, once again, about what a shame it is that IT folks don't more often think about sustainability issues and the contributions they could make.

There are in fact lots of things IT staff can do to assist their institutions with sustainability goals, some easy and short-term, others longer term but worth thinking about. I've listed a few here, not necessarily the most important ones, but some of the easier ones to do. Why not make it a new year's resolution that you will do two of the easy things and also spend some time at least thinking about a tougher, more complicated issue? At the end of my column this week, I've got a technology tip to help you make your New Year's pledge sustainable! (Look for the sentence in bold typeface.)

First, a brief answer to "What is sustainability, anyway?" In its simplest form, it is ensuring that access to environmental, social, and economic resources are shared fairly and not wasted. An important part of sustainability is that the "shared fairly" part includes not just us modern humans, but the generations which will follow us. Most people think of "green" buildings or recycling and re-use initiatives when they hear "sustainability," and that is an important part of it, but the concept is broader than just the physical environment. The concept of "ecological footprint" is a powerful one. The average such footprint of an American reveals that it takes about 24 acres of good land to support one of us. Since there are only 4.5 such acres per person, worldwide, it would take about 6 planet Earths to support our lifestyle for all living humans. This very quick, interactive online tool will help you measure your own ecological footprint.

When you think about the social and economic resources part of sustainability, you are thinking about issues such as the "Digital Divide" and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to name just a couple of areas that affect us in our daily work. IT folks tend already to think and work collaboratively; there is greater egalitarianism in IT departments than elsewhere and probably a narrower range of salaries (partly due to IT staff getting, in general, better pay than others, especially at the "bottom").

But the physical environment issues are the ones that feel most natural to IT staff, if for no other reason than that we're always trying to do more with less anyway, parsing away, although that sometimes trips us up in the long run (think Y2K). The easiest things you can do in 2004 to be more sustainable mostly involve the mantra, "recycle, reuse, and reduce." I'm going to ask you to chose one resolution from each of the next two groups as something to do, and then give you a more complicated issue that you don't have to do anything about, but think about it at least once a month.

Easy Things Anyone Can Do (choose one to do):

[ ] Have staff provide their own, washable cups instead of providing cardboard, plastic, or Styrofoam cups for coffee or water
[ ] Turn out the lights when you leave a restroom
[ ] Print on both sides of a sheet of paper when you can
[ ] Ride your bike to work more often
[ ] Park your car off campus and walk the last mile - it's good for your wellness and fitness and you can probably largely avoid parking fees with just a 15-minute walk
[ ] Recycle or re-use the tough cardboard boxes that computer equipment comes in

Some Things That IT Staff Can Make Happen for a Bigger Impact (choose one to do):

[ ] Educate users about energy-saving software such as automatic "sleep" features for monitors, and change the defaults on machines that you administer to go to sleep more quickly
[ ] Make sure that printing stations you control have double-sided printing enabled when it's a possible feature of the printer and its driver, and if you make purchasing decisions, insist on that feature
[ ] Maintain a more accurate inventory of peripherals, cables, and other such items so that you don't end up buying another one of something that's already sitting in a closet corner somewhere
[ ] Get your institution to follow the crowd and move to less (or no) free printing for students in computer labs
[ ] Ensure paper recycling bins are available in those computer labs, and that someone actually recycles the paper
[ ] In larger computer labs, establish a policy for shutting down entire sections during periods of low use - so you don't look in and see three students sitting at machines in a 100-computer lab.
[ ] Think about (gasp!) assigning larger blocks of LAN storage space for students to cut down on their need to use floppies, CDs, and zip discs.
[ ] Donate your time and expertise to the community, or maybe even to your college's current sustainability initiatives - they might need your help running software to report on environmental performance indicators

The Tough One (decide right now to think and learn about it at least once a month)

[ ] Think about: "How can we get more sustainable in the manufacture, distribution,
use, re-use, and disposal of computer-related hardware?"

For every pound that a computer weighs, there are more than 2.5 times as much weight in waste from its manufacture; and almost a pound-for-pound equivalent of toxic waste. And we just use them up and throw them away. That's just not sustainable.

If you are of a certain age, you may remember, as I do, the days of changing your car's oil yourself and just pouring the use oil into the sewer or onto the ground. Not any more! A used-up battery, cell phone, or CPU is probably just as toxic as that used motor oil, and an awful lot of our used-up IT equipment is still getting dropped into dumpsters, and it then ends up in a landfill somewhere. As sure as it's now illegal to just throw out used motor oil, there are going to be changes in the manufacture of computing products and components - changes in materials, processes, and in the treatment of the people who do the manufacturing. Likewise, we're not going to be able to just throw them away much longer, at least without penalty.

So, what do you say to once a month thinking creatively about these questions? Can we create new products that are not poisonous? Can new software models prolong the life of hardware? Will we move back to upgradeable machines instead of the "consume it and throw it away" model currently in place? Can we do a better job of creatively re-using technology to address the digital divide?

Think and/or read about these things once a month. Use your technology right now to make sure that you do. Take out your PDA and give yourself a monthly reminder, for the first Thursday in each month to "Think about the manufacture, use, and waste cycle of computing products." You only have to enter it once and tell the software to repeat it every month, now that's a sustainable software feature!

Note: Here are two really excellent, entertaining and thought-provoking, articles to read for background and vision on that big question:

Information Technology and Sustainability: Enabling the Future

Sustainable Information Technology for Global Sustainability

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