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How do computers affect the environmental footprint of law offices?Used computersIt’s easy to add up the negatives. Computers and their peripherals (printers, modems, cables, hubs, etc.) have large resource demands, pollute indoor air and create hazardous waste. Computers chew up power, paper and other resources. In the average office, 14% of the energy purchased is used to power computers. The typical computer uses more than 200 watts of energy and contains several pounds of hazardous substances, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and polyvinyl chloride. Computers also generate waste heat, which increases air conditioning loads – now the greatest strain for most electrical systems.While computers were supposed to herald the paperless office, most law offices have more paper than ever. The ease of printing multiplies the drafts and documents generated and the relentless pressure of litigation frequently requires that every one of them be kept. While a few offices rely on computer copies only, most believe (with good reason) that electronic media are too unreliable to be the exclusive form of storage of anything important, and can be vulnerable to security breaches.Then there is the question of indoor air quality. Printers, fax machines and copiers use volatile organic compounds in their ink that evaporate into and contaminate indoor air. In offices with sealed windows and poor ventilation, this can be a potential health hazard. Metals in the ink can contaminate used paper, making it harder and more expensive to recycle.There are very high material and energy costs in manufacturing each computer and transporting it from the manufacturer to the user. This embodied energy is relatively inefficient; unlike furniture or books, a computer usually lasts only two to three years before it is replaced. Proper disposal of discarded computers is a huge problem. Some are donated and reused, but most are landfilled or shipped long distances to poor countries. If done badly, either may cause problems, exposing people and the environment to their toxic components. The glass in CRT monitors, for example, contains up to 25 percent lead, a potent neurotoxin.On the positive side, computers can have environmental benefits. Computers and the Internet facilitate communication and collaboration, and give lawyers enormous access to information, both local and around the world. These can allow lawyers and their clients to make better environmental decisions and to better monitor the effects of those decisions. Because of better collaboration and easier revisions, computers may also improve the quality of lawyers work product.Computers are essential tools in reducing energy wastage. Law firms use far more energy on heating, cooling, lighting and transportation than they do on their computers, and computers can help reduce all of them. Email is more efficient than messengers, fax or mail. Email, video conferencing, etc. may reduce both commuting and long-distance travel, and save time. Even the humble programmable thermostat contains a tiny computer chip.There are many good reasons for law firms to get on the green bandwagon, ranging from cost saving and staff morale to the moral imperative of climate change. It can also be a marketing tool. Dozens of UK law firms showed off their green credentials last year on UN World Environment Day (5 June). The California firm, Wendel Rosen, advertises itself as the first US law firm to be certified green. Canadian firms may follow suit; in a February 07 survey by Bullfrog Power, 67 per cent of Canadians said they were likely to switch to retail / service firms with a demonstrated green track record.Thanks to computers and the Internet, many websites offer law firms good ideas to make their offices greener: see, e.g. http://earth911.org/blog/2007/06/25/turn-your-office-green/ and http://www.thegreenoffice.com.The ideas range from dead simple (e.g. recycling, turning off lights, printing on both sides), through slight effort (e.g. programmable thermostats, window shades, carpool programs, Energy Star appliances), to aggressive (e.g. renovations, moving). Such measures often save law firms money.Excellent information is also available from the American Bar Association (ABA). Last year, the ABA Sections of Environment, Energy and Resources and Law Practice Management joined forces with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to present the web-based ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Challenge (Climate Challenge). Law offices may meet the Climate Challenge by participating in one or more of three EPA partnership (i.e., voluntary) programs, or by simply undertaking “best practices in managing paper and buying power and equipment. It’s time for the OBA and the MOE to launch a similar challenge here.

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