There's no need to quit your day job when it's making office products sustainable.
Erin Gately was working in the marketing department at Hewlett-Packard when she took a workplace class on voluntary simplicity designed by the Northwest Earth Institute. Over nine sessions in 1998, she and other HP employees discussed the materialism of our culture and its impact on the earth. Eventually, she decided to leave HP and find a job saving the planet. She took a leave of absence and asked Jeanne Roy, one of the institute's founders, for help finding environmental work.
To her surprise, Roy told Gately to stay put. "We need people who care about the environment to work in big companies," she explained.
Hewlett-Packard certainly qualifies as big. And computer products are some of the least sustainable goods on the market: Most have a life span of less than three years and contain so many toxic components that they are hard to recycle. Computers and other e-waste now make up almost as much of the municipal waste stream as disposable diapers; an estimated 70 percent of the toxic metals in U.S. landfills come from high-tech gadgets.
Even so, HP has a pretty good environmental track record. In 1992 the company launched an initiative called Design for the Environment, with the aim of creating products that use less energy and fewer materials and are easier to recycle. It makes computer monitors with recycled monitor glass, uses recycled plastic in five of its scanner models, and in 1997 began recycling its ink-jet printer cartridges. Gately became an environmental product steward, helping to further reduce the environmental impact of HP's ink-jet printers.
Gately's job was made easier by tough directives passed by the European Union that banned the use of heavy metals and other toxic substances in the production of electronic equipment, and set collection, recovery, and recycling targets for the equipment when discarded. The EU standards forced the electronics industry to rethink the way it makes its products, not just for the European market but worldwide. "What was considered interesting but not very marketable in 1992 is almost a necessity now," Gately says.
Gately's focus for the past few years has been the DeskJet 6540 printer. It was designed to snap together so that it could be easily disassembled for recycling. When the product-design team wanted to use plastic with a painted metallic finish, Gately persuaded them to use real metal instead because painted plastic isn't recyclable. The DeskJet 6540 has won awards for its eco-friendly design and for its printing performance.
What's encouraging to Gately is that HP has found that sustainability is good business. For example, eliminating an adhesive that made it hard to recycle ink-jet cartridges ended up saving the company $2.4
million over two years, while eliminating unnecessary packaging on printer cartridges reduced the production cost of each one by 17 cents. Last year HP received more than $6 billion in bid requests that required information about its commitment to social and environmental responsibility — far more than it received the year before. To Gately, the lesson is obvious: "The world is waking up."