Man and woman looking at electronic devices

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 Certified, 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.

Recycle Electronics

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.

Sustainable Electronics

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 Certified – Sustainability Certification for IT Products

TCO Certified is not the best-known system, but its third-party verified criteria are comprehensive, relatively transparent,  and cover 3,500 products in 12 electronic product categories. Updated every three years, TCO Certified looks at several sustainability issues that include: 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 Certified includes criteria for supply chain diligence and responsible sourcing of tantalum, tin, tungsten, gold, and cobalt.

The criteria for social responsibility require manufacturers to follow the eight ILO core conventions and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the national labor laws and health and safety laws in the country of manufacture. They also require manufacturers to have an independently assessed anti-bribery management system and a comprehensive factory approval system that monitors continued compliance at the factories.

Criteria are also aimed at reducing or eliminating the use of hazardous substances — such as heavy metals and halogens — by making sure that only independently assessed safer alternative non-halogenated flame retardants, plasticizers, and cleaning solvents (used in factories) are used. Any flame retardants, plasticizers, or cleaning solvents used in the certified models must receive GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals verification and appear on the TCO Certified Accepted Substance List.

Addressing e-waste and circular economy together, TCO Certified criteria require products to be repairable and upgradeable, with at least a one-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. The marketing efforts focus on corporate procurement, but individuals can search for certified products on the TCO Certified website.

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.