Once upon a time, electronic waste disposal procedures on campus ranged from stacking broken printers in a storage closet to lining hallways with decommissioned monitors in the hopes that passing students might carry them away. As environmental awareness and concern over the human impact on climate change grows, a new phrase has entered the lexicon: green IT. The concept includes everything from how we dispose of electronic waste to maximizing energy efficiencies with our computing resources, and it has come to Queen's.
Last year, Physical Plant Services (PPS) disposed of 35 tons of electronic waste. Traditionally this would all have gone to landfill, but in more recent years, Queen's has partnered with a firm which provides recycling of parts and heavy metals and repurposes plastics. It costs the University about $45,000 a year to dispose of this waste, the majority of which is spent on transporting it to the recycling centre in Brampton, Ontario. In the future this may change. "Electronic waste is actually increasing in value," notes Ivan MacKeen, Business Manager of PPS. "We are exploring ways to offset some of our transportation costs through the sale of our electronic waste."
However, the real challenge is finding enough storage on campus to accommodate the collection volume that's required for provincial transport. Currently the waste is housed at the west campus storage building, but MacKeen says that new storage solutions are being pursued. "Because of our storage constraints, we still send three times as much electronic waste to landfill as we recycle," says MacKeen.
But electronic waste doesn't just come in the form of oversized CPUs, monitors and printers. Small ticket items such as printer cartridges contribute significantly to the waste disposal challenge. The Campus Computer Store in Dupuis Hall accepts all inkjet and toner cartridges for recycling. The Partners in Mission Food Bank collects and then sells the cartridges to a remanufacturer, with all proceeds going to the food bank.
Many enviro-conscious technology users have adopted simple conservation strategies such as recycling ink cartridges, double-sided printing and turning off computer monitors when not in use. Understanding the direct impact of IT on environmental carbon levels, and implementing more comprehensive strategies to reduce these emissions, are increasingly an area of focus in educational settings. These larger efforts fall within the field of sustainability, most commonly defined as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Implementing such far-reaching strategies can be challenging. The fear that sustainability initiatives will stretch already-taut budgets and compete with other campus initiatives can inhibit action. Individuals may believe that the crisis is so great their efforts will make no difference. However, the sense of urgency to address these issues, particularly amongst younger people, is a compelling force for action. Queen's has recognized that sustainability is an ongoing and key commitment for the University, and in the spring of 2008, the Queen's Sustainability Office was born.
EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology, released a paper last month on The Role of IT in Campus Sustainability Efforts. In it, a variety of IT sustainability strategies are proposed: reducing waste (for example, through less printing); reducing staff travel by encouraging work at home enabled by collaborative online tools and virtual privacy networks; and promoting alternative educational strategies such as online course offerings, web conferencing and video streaming.
It is incumbent upon us as individuals and as a community to use technology conscientiously, and acting in the best interests of the environment is one of our key responsibilities.