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Brownie points for green IT will go away … and then?

On the trip down to the annual SIMposium conference in Orlando this week, I leafed through Time magazine’s commemorative issue on the presidential election (great photos from both campaigns) and was struck by the number of advertisements plugging green IT.

Right now, the inconvenient truth that human beings have something to do with the degradation of our environment is a commonplace idea. Everybody is talking it up — well, almost everybody. Companies that are getting on the green IT bandwagon are getting brownie points for showing their awareness of the issue. CIOs are being urged to look beyond energy efficiency in the data center and the IT realm for ways to help their companies reduce their carbon footprints.

It’s not just companies. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), in its recent paper on green IT,  points out that state governors are among the strongest advocates for green technology and suggests CIOs can essentially earn some career brownie points of their own by taking the lead on green issues.

Here’s an obnoxious caveat you might want to think about — actually, I’ll give you three caveats on the rush to go green:

Caveat No. 1: Heavy-metal footprint

Forget about the carbon footprint we hear so much about; consider what I would call IT’s heavy-metal footprint. This relates, of course, to the disposal of IT assets. Think of this like the benefits of nuclear power and the tremendous environmental problems generated by the spent nuclear fuel.  

Although the heavy metals found in electrical devices and computers (including computer screens) — lead, cadmium mercury, chromium plus organic compounds related in part to flame retardants — are not radioactive, they are highly toxic to wildlife and children, in particular to developing brains. Think lead paint. Tons of equipment is dumped daily.

At the moment, if the pictures are to be believed,  a considerable portion of this IT waste is ending up being disassembled by children in Third World countries, where few or no environmental protections are in force. While regulations are increasing, particularly in Europe, in the U.S. the best practices for disposing of much of this waste are still voluntary.

If money is an object in 2009, as most agree it will be, the least expensive ways of disposing of this waste will likely be associated with unscrupulous agents. The effect will be that poor regions of the world will be contaminated. 

To put it another way, as your companies brag about reducing their carbon footprint with energy-efficient data centers and telepresence, it is at least worth keeping in mind that your heavy-metal footprint could have as bad or even worse consequences, like turning a child’s brain green!

There are companies that already get this. Pepsi Bottling is a good example. CIO Neal Bronzo faced the issue head on when he needed to replace 20,000 handheld devices used by delivery drivers. It was discovered that a Pepsi logo could not be removed without destroying the device, and the last thing Pepsi wanted was to see its brand piled atop a smoking heap of electronic waste in a poor Chinese town. Bronzo found a recycling company, Redemtech, which has put a stake in the ground against exporting IT waste.

Caveat No. 2: RoHs and other legislation is coming

Going green is very soon going to require buying electronic parts that don’t have the heavy metals. RoHs  (I have no idea how to pronounce this) stands for the “Directive on the Restriction of the use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment.” It is already in effect in the European Union and is headed this way. Companies like Toshiba and Zeiss and others are already starting to sell electronic devices that are compliant with these new legislative initiatives. And given the focus of the president-elect on environmental issues, it would not be surprising to me to see legislation enacted. And that will come with a cost.

My very obnoxious caveat No. 3

Pretty soon the extra credit for going green is going to go away. When green IT becomes the norm rather than the exception, there will be no more brownie points, just like there are no brownie points for complying with Sarbanes-Oxley. If you don’t comply, you go to jail. When that happens, going green will no longer be a bonus point but a cost. And sooner or later, doing the right thing, I hate to tell you, is going to be headache.

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i wholeheartedly agree with your "very obnoxious caveat #3." Get in those pats on the back while you can.