Seattle is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, an area known for its forests, waterways and wildlife. Despite its size, the city works hard to ensure it remains true to its "green" reputation, and environmental consciousness and preservation have always been important topics.

As a result, city employees were particularly frustrated with a common problem: Each time they ordered new PCs, they were inundated with packaging materials -- cardboard boxes, Styrofoam and plastic bubble wrap. Though the cardboard boxes and plastic wrap could be recycled, it often meant arranging a special pickup, and there was no recycling option for the Styrofoam, which ended up in the trash.

Seattle City Light, the electricity provider for the majority of Seattle and one of the city's largest departments, orders an average of 450 new PCs each year. Dealing with packaging materials was particularly difficult for the agency. To make matters worse, 13 of Seattle's city departments, including Seattle City Light, recently moved into leased space in a single, high-rise building.

Because space is expensive, most of it was designated for cubicles and offices, leaving little room for storage. When all that PC packaging arrived, there was nowhere to put it.

Finding a Better Way

Shirli Axelrod is an environmental analyst for Seattle Public Utilities, which is responsible for solid waste programs and recycling for the city and its residents. Axelrod works with other city departments to promote waste reduction and environmentally responsible purchasing programs.

"If we are going to tell the public to reduce waste and recycle, we have to make sure the city departments are doing it as well," she said.

Initially Axelrod and Alan Leong, supervisor of Desktop Administration and Procurement at Seattle City Light, looked at ways to simply recycle or reuse PC packaging. But the Styrofoam was always the hitch.

"There's no viable recycling available for that kind of Styrofoam, so it would wind up going in the garbage," said Axelrod.

Frustrated, Axelrod and Leong went to Gateway, the city's contracted PC provider and suggested everybody work together to reduce packaging. Initially Gateway proposed they shrink-wrap the Styrofoam, put it on pallets, and send it back for reuse. But that proved impractical.

"It was going to be a lot of work for the computer folks to receive this stuff, unwrap it and then rehandle all the wrapping, and most of our buildings aren't set up for putting things on pallets and shrink-wrapping them," said Axelrod. "Plus, the fuel to ship the stuff back and forth is another significant environmental impact -- you're really diminishing any benefit you might have gained."

What made more sense was to not produce the material in the first place.

So after additional brainstorming, the city and Gateway came up with the reusable rolling metal crate idea, similar to those used in the airline industry.

"They were open to the idea," said Leong. "So we then went back and forth on what it would take in terms of dimensions: How many PCs could fit in a crate? Would it fit down our hallways and into our freight elevators?"

Gateway developed initial dimensions and sketches and sent them back to Seattle City Light. Once a design was agreed upon, Gateway created a fully working mock-up. The crate they designed accommodates 24 PCs, including all accompanying keyboards, mice, power cords and documentation. Its compartments are lined with permanently attached Styrofoam to protect the equipment.

Seattle City Light has used the crate for several months.

"It's worked out great," said Leong. "There is a huge difference between 24 PC boxes stacked on top of each other versus one crate that's about six feet long and five feet tall."

The new crates save labor, which translates

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer