PC eco-label criteria target flame retardants and energy efficiency

Criteria for personal computers (PCs) being developed under the EC eco-labelling scheme may seek to exclude brominated flame retardants. But their main emphasis will be on energy efficiency, which could create confusing overlap with the European Commission's plans to introduce the US Energy Star label into the EC.

A life-cycle analysis (LCA) on PCs was presented in a report to an ad hoc working group meeting in Brussels in February.1 Detailed eco-label criteria will be produced and discussed at a further meeting at the end of March.

The LCA was conducted in accordance with guidelines produced by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. The use phase of the PC's life cycle was set at three years, the period companies use for writing off a PC in their accounts. PCs were assumed to run eight hours a day for 230 days per year. Power consumption for the monitor was 100W and 60W for the control unit.

The report concludes that the PC's major impacts are in its use phase, which contributes around 70% of life-cycle emissions, energy consumption and waste. It identifies eight possible environmental improvements, ranked according to their significance, which could be used as the basis for the criteria:

  • Significant: Reduce monitor energy consumption, extend lifetime, and reduce control unit energy consumption.

  • Moderate: Ensure take-back and recycling, and eliminate halogenated flame retardants.

  • Less significant: Use recyclate in plastic components, recycle all packaging, and use lead-free solder.

    This three-tier system does not imply that the "moderate" and "less significant" improvements should not feature in the criteria, says the report. But it adds that reductions in the three "less significant" impacts would produce limited environmental benefit. ENDS understands that there was little opposition to a suggestion to abandon the three when it was made at the meeting.

    The energy consumption of PC monitors, says the report, holds "very strong improvement potential". Crucial to this is the length of time before the monitor enters stand-by and sleep modes. A requirement for this period to be relatively short, coupled with an on-screen message about the importance of this parameter, could help ensure that the energy-saving features are actually used. Energy consumption of the control unit is less critical than that of the monitor but "nonetheless significant".

    As with electrical products already covered by the eco-label, such as washing machines, the prominence given by the criteria to energy consumption during use will produce significant overlap with the US Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star label if this is adopted at EC level, as the Commission's Energy Directorate, DGXVII, hopes. Discussions with the EPA have been dragging on since 1996, but DGXVII hopes to announce the label's launch in the EC by the end of the year.

    Extending a PC's lifetime "clearly improves" its environmental performance, says the report. The physical design of the PC cabinet should allow a new motherboard and hard disk made three years on to fit inside, but the problem seems to lie with the failure of users to upgrade their PCs. Therefore criteria should address other barriers to upgradability, such as the cost of a new motherboard and hard disk compared to a new PC, or changes in the PC's internal communication structure which make the new motherboard incompatible.

    In addition, the report says that criteria could be set for a guarantee on take-back and design for recycling, but it does not explain how this could work in practice.

    PCs free of brominated flame retardants are increasing their market share within the EC because of environmental concerns. This is reflected in the criteria set by other eco-labelling schemes such as TCO 95, the German Blue Angel and the Nordic White Swan (ENDS Report 270, pp 26-27 ). The major brominated flame retardants used in PCs are decabromodiphenyl ether and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBA).

    Although a quantitative assessment of the environmental benefits of eliminating halogenated flame retardants was not possible, the report says the chemicals "clearly are problematic from an environmental and toxicological perspective, and the justification is questionable for their long term presence in most PCs." Several, it adds, have been shown to be bioaccumulative, highly persistent in the environment and to have hormone-mimicking mechanisms, while recent studies have found TBBA in blood samples of office workers (ENDS Report 276, p 6 ).

    Several options exist for possible criteria in this area, such as designing PCs to make flame retardants unnecessary, using other retardants such as phosphate esters, or using low-flammability plastics such as polycarbonate.

    The European Brominated Flame Retardants Industry Panel (EBFRIP) submitted a defence of its products to the meeting, challenging the report's claim that polybrominated diphenyl ethers and TBBA are environmentally hazardous and claiming that its conclusions "are often unreferenced or based on conjectural reporting." It also said it is misleading to target all brominated flame retardants when only a few are used in PCs.

    Most major PC producers have opposed the concept of the eco-label from the outset (ENDS Report 269, p 28 ). Valentine Herman of the IT equipment manufacturers association EUROBIT, whose members account for 30% of the EC market, told ENDS that the organisation was "amazingly unimpressed by the whole PC eco-label programme - the LCA methodology, the economic assessment and the supposed market need for an eco-label." More specifically, he said that the specifications for a generic computer used as the basis for the life-cycle inventory were out of date.

    Mr Herman made two further criticisms of the LCA report. On the one hand, he said it "failed to prove" that the eight suggested improvements would lead to substantial environmental gains. But on the other, he maintained that the eco-label is superfluous because all the impacts are already being addressed - either by EC initiatives such as the introduction of the Energy Star label or the proposals for a Directive on recycling of electronic products, or by industry research on issues such as alternatives to brominated flame retardants or lead solder. This begs the question why PC producers should be conducting this research if they believe little environmental benefit will result.

    EUROBIT will continue to participate in the discussions for the time being. Once criteria have been agreed, it will compare them with the voluntary guidelines produced by the European Computer Manufacturers Association last year and with other eco-label schemes in Europe. It will then decide whether to recommend to its members that they should boycott the label.

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