Professional Learning

Green Products Guide: Information Technology and Related Equipment

Tap into these tips for finding environmentally friendly materials.

October 28, 2009

No standardized green label exists for all information-technology products and related equipment, such as printers, projectors, and interactive whiteboards. However, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), offered by the Green Electronics Council, a highly respected third-party certifier, covers computer desktops, laptops, monitors, workstations, and thin clients -- computers that rely on a central server to perform most operations. (To make things confusing, software used by thin client computers is also often referred to as a thin client, but EPEAT does not certify software.)

For consumers searching for green IT products, experts say that EPEAT eliminates the guesswork associated with finding environmentally safe ones. (All EPEAT-certified products also meet Energy Star specifications.) Compared with conventional computers, EPEAT-registered computers contain reduced levels of cadmium, lead, and mercury, toxic substances harmful to humans and the environment. EPEAT certification also requires manufacturers to offer a take-back program to customers that retrieves products when their life cycle ends to recycle them in a responsible manner.

Finding printers, interactive whiteboards, projectors, and copiers with green features such as energy efficiency, reduced hazardous substances, and a recycling program requires digging. With these products, start by looking for the Energy Star label. Choose laser printers over inkjet printers, which require five to ten times more ink to operate. When purchasing a printer, consider an MFU, a machine that incorporates printing, copying, and faxing in one. (Some brands also offer additional functions such as emailing and scanning.) Operating one machine instead of three cuts energy costs. Save even more money and energy by strategically placing printers or MFUs in locations where they can be shared.

Another attribute to consider when aiming for green products is their packaging. Use clout as a school district by leaning on vendors to be green in this area. Ask them questions: Are you using recycled cardboard boxes? Are you using cornstarch packing peanuts, which decompose quickly, instead of petroleum-based ones, which take a long time to break down? If we purchase a certain number of units, are you able to shrink-wrap some as a bundle instead of packaging each one individually?

How to Choose:

Centrally manage the power use of PC-networked computers with energy-management computer software, which determines when computers aren't in use and then powers them down or off. Districts using such products report significantly reduced utility bills, some up to 40 percent annually for those computers, and say the product pays for itself in anywhere from six months to two years. Another cost-saving benefit: Districts buying software that is considered energy-saving technology may qualify for rebates from participating local utilities.

Consolidate the number of servers needed for running applications, such as instructional materials, memos, and student information, into one computer through virtualization software. Running and maintaining fewer machines adds up to big savings in maintenance costs and energy consumption. You conserve energy not only by running fewer servers but also by reducing the need for air-conditioning, which accounts for half the energy consumed in data centers.

Determine the computer energy consumption (from computer use and data infrastructure) in your school environment by using a calculator provided by the Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit organization that advises K-12 school district technology leaders.

Reduce the number of classroom computers through data-center-solutions virtualization. This technology allows multiple students to tap the power of one server application simultaneously while maintaining an individual desktop experience. Each user's own monitor, keyboard, and mouse connect to the shared computer through a device that makes for a virtual-desktop experience. Running fewer PCs cuts energy and maintenance costs dramatically. Reduced air-conditioning bills also contribute to cost savings: Virtual desktops don't generate heat like regular PCs do.

Product Picks:

  • Verdiem's Surveyor. Windows energy-management computer software.
  • Faronics's PowerSave. Macs and Windows energy-management computer software.

Both Verdiem and Faronics partner with utilities to provide incentive rebates that result in products being discounted or sometimes free.

  • VMware virtualization software. Other leading makers include Microsoft, IBM, and Citrix.
  • NComputing's X-series virtual-desktop solution allows for up to 11 students to draw from the energy of one PC. The palm-size plastic device, which connects users to the powered desktop, is easy to install. Each NComputing power device draws just 1 watt of energy, compared with 110 for an average PC. NComputing works with districts to qualify for energy rebates from local utility companies.

VMware, Hewlett-Packard, and Wyse Technology make virtual-desktop products as well.

  • Smart Strip. A power strip that turns computer peripherals off automatically when the computer is shut down.
  • Kill A Watt and GreenPlug. Two relatively inexpensive devices that plug into a wall outlet and measure energy use.
  • Interwrite Mobi interactive tablet, made by eInstruction. This wireless, magazine-size tablet runs on batteries that recharge via a USB cable from a computer and uses radio frequencies to "talk" to a computer. Teachers can roam the room with the tablet or simply ask students to pass it around. When students write comments on the tablet, their feedback instantly projects onto a blank wall or a pull-down screen.

    The tablet comes with an internal recharging penholder. This gizmo, a less expensive alternative to an interactive whiteboard, costs about one-third as much and uses less energy.


For product types not certified by EPEAT, look for Energy Star and RoHS compliance. The latter is a regulation required for all new electrical and electronic equipment sold in the European Union. RoHS restricts the use of hazardous substances including lead, mercury, cadmium, and certain flame retardants that can pollute landfill and are potentially harmful to workers during manufacturing and recycling.

In March, EcoLogo unveiled a stringent standard for office equipment, including copiers, printers, and multifunctional units (MFUs). EcoLogo requires products to meet Energy Star criteria and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) requirements and sets strict limits on ozone, dust, and VOC emissions.

It also requires manufacturers to have a take-back program for recycling machines when they are no longer useful and permit the use of remanufactured toner cartridges, a practice many warranties for printers and copiers don't allow. EcoLogo has 86 certified products from companies such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), Konika Minolta, Lexmark, Ricoh, Samsung, and Xerox.

Evantheia Schibsted is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Edutopia.

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