Packing Lightly

Seattle works to reduce the amount of packaging it receives with each new PC.

by / October 28, 2003
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 into lower expenses, Leong said.

"Because we don't have to unpack the PC boxes or stack them, we're saving about two hours per shipment," he said. "If the average analyst makes $30 an hour, that adds up."

The crate also solved a delivery problem. Because the computers were originally shipped on pallets that were too wide to fit down their hallways, Seattle City Light employees unloaded PCs from the pallets onto flatbed carts for delivery to users. The new crate is designed to easily move from truck to loading dock, into elevators and through doorways. New computers can now be delivered to users' desks directly from the crate. The crate also provides a cost-effective way to remove old equipment and eliminates the storage problem.

"We take the crate directly to the users desk, load up the old PC, lock the crate back up, call the shipping company, and ship it back to Gateway for recycling," said Leong.

Not Alone
Seattle is not the only government reducing PC packaging.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) has also made significant efforts to cut waste. It recently ordered more than 500 new DFI 233 MHz computer systems, requesting that the vendor wrap each system in plastic and pack as many computers to a box as possible. Since they were sturdy systems with sheet metal cases, the vendor did so without using any Styrofoam. The computers were delivered in 25 large cardboard boxes on pallets, significantly reducing the amount of packaging materials. After the systems were unpacked, the shipping company hauled away the pallets and the cardboard boxes were recycled.

"We are naturally concerned with recycling waste," said Lanny Clavecilla, spokesman for CIWMB. "We want to make sure we emulate the efforts we're pushing for."

Clavecilla agrees the best solution is not to produce the waste in the first place. "There has to be a sustainable market for waste if you are going to rely on recycling," he said. "Fortunately we've been getting a lot of cooperation from vendors."

When CIWMB decided to upgrade the processors in its Dell desktop PCs, it again managed to reduce the associated packaging waste. The new processors would normally have resulted in delivery of 500 separate boxes and miscellaneous packaging.

Instead, CIWMB's Information Management Branch procurement staff convinced the vendor to bulk package the processor chips in five boxes, each of which included five chip trays with 20 chips per tray. The total amount of packaging materials and storage space requirements was reduced by approximately 95 percent.

Back in Seattle, City Light is continuing to test the reusable crate. Once they've tested it thoroughly, they plan to spread the word to other city departments. Leong believes it won't be long until most of the city will be using crates as well.

"It won't make a huge difference if they're only ordering a few PCs," he said. "But we ordered 600 PCs in our department alone last year. We plan to use the crate for all our new PCs next year. That's a lot of Styrofoam that won't be making it to the landfill."

Justine Brown Contributing Writer