GSA guide to ensure electronics are green to the end

Wednesday - 11/2/2011, 2:11pm EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The government's 5 million computers, monitors and other electronics should be green until the very end of their lives. That's the central message of guidance the General Services Administration is preparing to release in February.

"We're trying to go from being the largest consumer of electronics to the most responsible consumer," said GSA sustainability specialist Chris Hoagland Wednesday at a Green Gov Symposium in Washington.

Agencies will have to divide their unwanted electronics into two groups: unusable items should go to a certified recycler or a manufacturer who will either refurbish or recycle it; Items that are usable should be reused, whether by the same agency, another one or a third party such as a school. But agencies should make sure that equipment doesn't end up in a landfill, even if they aren't the ones putting it there.

"We're trying to close that loop, make sure that all of the equipment that we use, regardless of whether we're the final user, ends up at a certified recycler after reuse opportunities have been exhausted," said Hoagland. It's not clear, however, how far the government can go to make sure others dispose of the eqipment in an environmentally sound way.

"We're still looking at options to see how much we can require and how much we can simply encourage," he said. By dividing their unwanted electronics into usable and unusable items, however, agencies can "minimize the amount of nonreusable equipment that ends up in the wrong place," he added.

The new policy stems from the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, which the Environmental Protection Agency released in July. The strategy called for the government to "lead by example," by disposing of electronics in ways that protect public heath and the environment and creating new markets for second-hand equipment.

The strategy emphasizes reuse of equipment because "reusing a desktop saves the most greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of 10 to 100," over other green practices, said Cate Berard, who manages the EPA's Federal Environment Challenge, which advises agencies on environmentally sound ways of buying, using and getting rid of electronics.

"When you reuse something, you don't have to manufacture it from the start and there are a lot of greenhouse gas emissions that go into manufacturing," she said. The strategy stated agencies should sell nonfunctional equipment only to certified recyclers or refurbishers. Hoagland said GSA was trying to expand options to include as many free programs as possible. Manufacturers usually take back electronics at no cost and recycling auctions offer ways for an agency to recoup some of the equipment's value, he said.

GSA is also updating its purchase schedules to remove all products that do not comply with Energy Star or the Electronic Product Environment Assessment Tool (EPEAT).

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