When the market is full of greenwashing or when information on environmental impacts is hard to find, conscious consumers rely on third-party certifications to find out which products are the most sustainable. We trust that LEED-certified homes are greener, USDA organic foods are cleaner, and EWG verified personal products are safer. Unfortunately, there is not always one certification that everyone trusts. That’s the case with IT products – electronic devices ranging from tablets and smartphones to data storage and servers. But one sustainable electronics certification system, called TCO, is looking pretty promising.
Electronics’ Environmental Effects
Despite their often diminutive size, electronic devices contain a plethora of hazardous substances. A single device includes a variety of heavy metals – beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, mercury, lithium, and zinc – many of which are health and environmental toxins. Electronics also contain brominated flame retardants. And of course, they contain a variety of nonrecyclable, fossil fuel-based plastics.
Electronics also use precious metals and rare earth minerals that are not necessarily harmful on their own. But they are obtained through mining, often in developing nations where environmental controls are lax. Residents of these nations are left with the environmental impacts of mining while rarely enjoying the economic benefits, which is an environmental justice problem.
Another environmental justice issue results from electronics waste. Electronics should not be disposed of as garbage. Incineration of electronics generates greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, while landfilling or stockpiling results in soil and water pollution. But electronics recycling often takes place in what is known as the informal waste sector in developing countries. Up to 31 million women and children work in this sector. While recovering materials like copper and gold, they are exposed to more than 1,000 harmful substances without protective gear or health benefits.
When the better disposal option exposes the world’s most vulnerable citizens to poison, we need to look upstream. Many of the harmful materials are necessary to the function of electronics and their batteries. But there are some safer options. Good design can minimize the quantities of heavy metals and plastic in each device. Less toxic flame retardants are equally effective.
A handful of certification systems identify more sustainable electronics. Energy Star does not address overall sustainability but does ensure that a product is more energy efficient than others of its type. EcoLogo UL is a multi-attribute system based on life-cycle impacts. EPA maintains a list of preferred certifications for a variety of electronic products. Their list is dominated by EPEAT, a third-party verified registry of products that meet life-cycle-based standards developed through a voluntary consensus process. EPEAT standards are different for each electronic product class. Office supply chain Staples has their own Eco-ID label that relies on other certification systems combined with requirements for recycled and bio-based content and recyclability.
TCO Certification for Electronics
TCO certification is not the best-known system, but its third-party verified standards are comprehensive, relatively transparent, and cover 3,500 products in 11 electronic product categories. Updated every three years, TCO looks at five issues: conflict minerals, social responsibility, hazardous substances, electronic waste, and circular economy.
Most people are familiar with the term “conflict diamond” or “blood diamond,” but conflict minerals include materials as prosaic as tin. Tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold (collectively known as 3TG) as well as cobalt are vital components in tech products. Unfortunately, they are connected to armed conflicts and human rights abuses where they are extracted, often in unregulated artisanal mines. TCO sets criteria for supply chain diligence and responsible sourcing of tantalum, tin, tungsten, gold, and cobalt.
TCO standards for social responsibility require manufacturing to follow the eight ILO core conventions and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the national laws in the country of manufacture; an independently assessed anti-corruption management system; and continuous monitoring of health and safety practices.
Criteria for TCO certification aim to reduce or eliminate the use of heavy metals, halogens, non-halogenated flame retardants, and plasticizers. Any flame retardants and plasticizers used must receive GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals verification.
Addressing e-waste and circular economy together, TCO standards require products to be repairable and upgradeable, with at least a 1-year warranty and standards for battery life and replaceability. Software for data deletion must be included with the product. Producer responsibility through take-back programs is required. TCO focuses its marketing efforts on corporate procurement, but individuals can search for TCO-certified products on their website.