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Expert Interview, Sarah O'Brien - EPEAT

With all the buzz surrounding EPEAT, we thought we would go right to the source to get the inside scoop on its history and its thoughts on imaging and other environmental initiatives dealing with electronics. These are the questions and the responses.

1) Can you tell me how EPEAT came about and how it has evolved over time?

In 2001, there was desire among purchasers to buy what they considered “greener” electronic products, and there was a desire from manufacturers to meet that demand. The challenge was that at that time there was no agreed-upon definition for “greener” electronics, because the devices and their lifecycle environmental impacts were so complex.

The EPEAT system launched in July of 2006 to rate the environmental impacts of PCs and Displays. When it debuted, the system had 60 registered products from three participating manufacturers. The stakeholders who developed EPEAT selected the Green Electronics Council, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit organization, to manage the EPEAT system.

Since that time, the system has expanded considerably. The number of registered products now exceeds 3,000, and more than 50 manufacturers participate. The EPEAT system now covers 42 countries. Registration and verification services are provided through a global network of organizations including CESI, DEKRA, Intertek, UL Environment and VDE. And EPEAT recently expanded beyond PCs and Displays to include Imaging Equipment (copiers, printers, scanners, multifunction devices, etc.), with a Television category scheduled to launch soon.

2) Does EPEAT have any type of lobbying efforts for greener electronics legislation like the e-waste bill (S. 1270 and H.R. 2284) dealing with responsible electronics recycling, or do you just deal with the certification of electronics?

We don’t work on legislation or regulation. The Green Electronics Council’s focus is moving the electronics sector toward environmental improvement through market mechanisms such as EPEAT registration and purchasing. We also are involved in research and educational initiatives with a diverse group of stakeholders to continue refining our collective understanding of what it means to be a “greener” electronic device.

3) How much is the idea of “reducing” people’s carbon footprint still in play these days?

The concept seems to be very much still in play, although the literal phrase “carbon footprint” may or may not come up. At the heart of the “footprint” discussion is the notion of reducing one’s environmental impact due to lifestyle choices. Individuals or consumers have myriad ways to identify the activities that make the most sense to them, so exactly how and to what degree they choose to reduce their environmental impact is largely a personal decision.

Likewise, institutions and businesses have many different options for reducing their environmental impact, including the electronic devices they choose to purchase. The impetus for developing the EPEAT system a decade ago was to give them a one stop shop for reducing environmental impact across the board ? from carbon to toxics, to recycling and recycled content. That same goal continues to drive stakeholders forward as they work to develop standards for different categories of electronic devices.

4) Can you give us some more details about the process by which the new EPEAT standards came about? I have read that discussions took place over the previous three-four years. How and when did you decide to start the new process, what kinds of people were involved, and how were they chosen?

After the first EPEAT product ratings launched in 2006, the stakeholders who were involved in that process identified and prioritized which products should next be addressed by the EPEAT system. They identified four new categories and prioritized them as: Imaging Equipment, Televisions, Servers and Mobile Devices.

Keep in mind, standards development is a public consensus process open to any stakeholder willing to participate in rather complex technical discussions and policy debates about product and company performance. The only restriction is that the process requires an overall balance of different stakeholder types so no single interest can unfairly dominate the proceedings. For context, approximately 400 stakeholders participated in the process of developing Imaging Equipment and Television standards, including institutional purchasers, manufacturers, environmental advocates, recyclers, government staffers, materials and chemicals suppliers. As you can imagine, a consensus process that involves that many diverse voices can take time, but it?s time well spent. Having a consensus-based environmental standard is vital to having the support of all involved.

The Imaging Equipment and Television standards were published in 2012, and since that time manufacturers have been working to meet the requirements of those standards, as you?ll see on the recently launched Imaging Equipment category and will soon see in the EPEAT Television category. Servers have been the subject of a Technical Study Group over the past year, and we are moving into active standards development shortly on a Server standard. Mobile devices represent a particularly fast-evolving sector, so we?re launching a number of research activities into that category this year to provide the foundation for next steps toward related standards.

5) A lot of your interest is on the devices themselves, but do you do anything with regards to the consumables used in inkjet and laser printers? If so, what do your efforts involve? If not, do you plan to enter into that arena anytime in the future?

EPEAT is a lifecycle standard, so it addresses all environmental impacts of the product type. In the case of Imaging Equipment, consumables are significant so they’re addressed by the standard. EPEAT rates products based on a combination of required criteria and optional criteria. (You can obtain the details of those criteria by purchasing the standard at – search for “IEEE 1680”, then look for “1680.2 Imaging Equipment”). EPEAT’s Imaging Equipment standard contains four required criteria and two optional criteria pertaining to consumables.

Sarah O’Brien educates purchasers about using EPEAT to reduce their organizations’ environmental impact, and collaborates with all stakeholders and staff to expand EPEAT’s reach.

Sarah participated as an expert on environmentally preferable purchasing on the original stakeholder Development Team that created EPEAT, and joined the EPEAT staff in 2007. Previously, with H2E/Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, she assisted health care organizations across North America to improve environmental performance through purchasing initiatives that affected billions of dollars of procurement each year. Earlier, as Senior Outreach Associate with the national nonprofit INFORM, she assisted state, local and federal government, education and enterprise purchasers to reduce purchase of products containing persistent toxic substances. As an environmental health advocate for the National Wildlife Federation and Vermont Public Interest Research Group, she was involved in legislative advocacy and public education efforts throughout the Northeast United States, with a specific focus on mercury reduction measures.

Sarah is an honors graduate of Yale University, with an MA in Anthropology from Temple University, and has served as a Board member of the US National Pollution Prevention Roundtable.