by Jacob Gordon, Nashville, TN on 03.22.07
What’s the Big Deal?Yes, electronic devices are becoming a bigger and bigger part of our lives, especially as they get smaller and smaller. We use them as tools and toys to communicate, work, enjoy media, and be expressive. Being green with electronics doesn’t mean living in a teepee listening to truckers squalk on the old short-wave. Greening your electronics is a matter of knowing what tech to get, how to use it best, and what to do with it when its useful life is done. Many of these best practices aren’t things you’ll read in the instruction manual, either. In this guide we’ll tell you how to stop wasted energy, what gizmos are greener than others, and what to do about e-waste and electronics recycling. We’ll also show you some of the newest green gadgets coming over the horizon.
1. Go rechargeable
Of the 15 billion batteries produced and sold each year, most of them are disposable alkaline batteries, and only a fraction of those are recycled. Look for electronics that are rechargeable. For removable batteries, lithium-ion (Li-Ion) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) are cost-effective, green alternatives. The fastest battery chargers can juice up AAs in as little as 15 minutes, and will pay for themselves quite quickly.
2. Kill vampire power
Just because your cell phone is unplugged from the charger or your TV is off, doesn’t mean these devices aren’t drawing a current and running up your electricity bill. Many AC adapters (or “wall warts”) if left plugged in will continue to pull a current from the wall socket (you may notice they are warm to the touch). Many devices that have a standby mode do the same thing. To make sure you aren’t wasting energy, pull the plug on devices when not in use or put all of your electronics and chargers on a power strip. This way you can simply flip the power strip off when your electronics are not in use. There are also a number of “smart” power strips on the market that sense when electronics are turned off, or that turn off the strip when one main unit (like your PC) is powered down. (Note that some electronics need to be turned off via the on/off switch before cutting the power. Inkjet printers, for example, need to seal the cartridge heads to avoid clogging.)
3. Buy with energy in mind
Some types of electronics suck more than others, at least in energy terms. Doing research on different technologies and their respective energy consumption can save you a lot in the long run. For example, if you want a flat panel television, look into LCD models, which use much less energy than plasmas. The Energy Star site will help you identify energy-saving electronic devices like cordless phones, stereo systems, TVs, DVD players, battery chargers, and a whole bunch more.
4. Treat those batteries right
While battery recycling programs are increasingly common and easy to use, the process of recycling anything still takes energy and resources and should not be overused (one of the most polluted sites on the planet is a battery recycling plant in the Dominican Republic). Knowing how to best use and maintain rechargeable batteries will boost their longevity and performance. See Getting Techie below for more on the specifics.
5. Make it a short circuit
So, you just bought the newest, sleekest cell phone. It takes video, filters out calls from exes, and charts barometric pressure. What should you do with the old one? Whatever you do, don’t just throw it in the trash--this risks releasing chemicals into the ecosystem. There are plenty of organizations and charities that recycle and reuse old electronics. If you want a return on your old gadgets, sell them on an online auction site--people will often buy them even if they are broken. Bonus! A growing number of computer manufacturers are adopting take-back programs as well, under which they will accept and recycle their units when you’re done with them.
6. Buy used
Don’t want to spend a fortune on technology? You can find top quality, totally functional used electronics at sites like Ebay and Craigslist, and even at yard sales and flea markets. This not only cuts down on the amount of new resources being used for the production of more stuff, it also creates a market for sellers to safely recirculate electronics they’re no longer using. Ebay’s Easytradein.com is a good resource for the electronics you are ready to part with. You might even be surprised what comes up on Freecycle.
7. Bright idea: The solar charger
There are an increasing number of options for on-the-go solar power. From handheld to backpack power, solar chargers now come in a spectrum of types for juicing up phones, PDAs, Bluetooth headsets, iPods, and laptops. Many have an onboard battery pack that can charge while the solar cells are in the sun, and then transfer the power to your device when you need it. See “Digging Deeper into TreeHugger” below for a list of solar chargers on the market.
8. Extend use
There’s definitely a cult around replacing our electronic toys and tools every 15 minutes or so when a new model comes out. In some cases, the newest technologies are cleaner and more efficient, but often, the older ones will faithfully do their assigned task for a lot longer than the marketplace would have us believe. In some cases, the older models are even superior. Step back a few paces from the whole technophelia thing and take stock of what your real needs are. It couldn’t hurt to practice some of this in the rest of our lives, as well.
9. Look for EPEAT
EPEAT (electronic product environmental assessment tool) is a new attempt at environmental certification for computers (CPUs, monitors, and notebooks). Released in early 2006, only a limited number of products have been registered with EPEAT so far, however, look for this certification to pick up steam in the near future. (EPEAT homepage)
10. Buy a less toxic system
Europe is making huge inroads on reducing the presence of toxic chemicals in electronics such as lead, cadmium, and mercury with a directive called RoHS (Restriction on Hazardous Substances). Look for companies that are adhering to--and even going beyond--the RoHS compliance in Europe and around the globe. [ROHS UK Homepage, Wikipedia's ROHS page]
1. Demand product recycling
In a perfect world, product manufacturers would happily take back the products they sold you at the end of their useful life. Many companies do offer to recycle their old products, but plenty still lag behind. Get vocal with manufacturers and your government representatives to improve both voluntary and mandated electronics recycling, and vote with your dollars for companies that take it back.
2. The right tool for the job
Does your computer really need a 3-D graphics card for your email correspondences? Do you need 500 GB of memory for bidding on those limited edition organic cotton Vans on Ebay? A 30“ cinematic display for reading TreeHugger? Most often, the more powerful your computer and the more extra doodads it has, the more energy it will consume, the more it will cost, and the more physical mass it will take up. It’s also a uniquely sad feeling when a piece of hardware or software goes obsolete before you even got to play with it. Itemize your computing needs and then find the computer, PDA, cell phone, stereo, digital camera that is going to best fit your needs. Also keep your eyes peeled for upgradability: the ability to expand or update a device’s capabilities.
3. Offset your energy
Carbon offsets aren’t just for travel. Individual offsets that you purchase can help negate your energy usage, including time on your computer or chatting away on your cell phone. This is particularly valuable if you are a heavy user. For more carbon offsets and renewable energy credits, see How to Green Your Electricity.
4. The digital thermostat
The most energy-saving electronic device you ever buy might be a simple programmable thermostat for your home. For more, see How to Green Your Heating.
Charge your phone or PDA off your computer’s USB port and never have to worry about leaving your AC adapter plugged in.
6. iPod surgery
Is your iPod’s flagging longevity starting to make you antsy? Battery replacement kits are out there if you’re ready to get hands-on. Don’t forget to recycle the old li-ion battery after you’ve removed it. Apple will also replace any out-of-warranty iPod battery that has lost its ability to hold a charge for around $65 .
7. Battery switcheroo
If you’ve bought a new battery pack for your laptop (because the old one pooped out on you—yes, that’s normal), you can keep the old, weak battery inserted when the computer is plugged in, like when working at a desk. Save the fresh battery for travel. Li-ion batteries are very sensitive to temperature and so keeping the new battery away from the laptop’s heat will prolong its life.
1. Of the $250 billion spent per year on powering computers worldwide, only about 15% of that power is spent computing-the rest is wasted idling. (link)
2. Electronics make up 70 percent of all hazardous waste. (link)
3. Making the average PC requires 10 times the weight of the product in chemicals and fossil fuels. (link)
4. 15 billion batteries are produced annually worldwide. (link)
5. 40% of the energy used for electronics in your home is used while these devices are turned off.
6. In the US, energy efficient battery chargers could save American consumers more than 1 billion kilowatt hours of power per year, which would save more than $100 million each year, and prevent the release of more than a million tons of greenhouse gasses. (link)
How to care for your batteries
Knowing how to best maintain rechargeable batteries can help them last longer and perform better. Advice on how to best care for rechargeables does vary depending on the info source, likely because different battery formulas work best under different conditions. There are two main types of rechargeable batteries: lithium-ion and nickel metal hydride, both of which suit different applications.
Lithium Ion (Li-Ion)
Advantages: Li-ion batteries have the advantage of a higher energy density (energy/weight ratio) and higher voltages than other batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are also designed to recharge hundreds of times and hold their charge for long periods when not in use.
Disadvantages: Li-ion batteries (and their chargers) are typically more expensive than other rechargeable batteries. Li-ions also don’t come in standard battery sizes (like AA, D, etc.).
Care: If you plan to store a Li-ion battery, store it with a partial or full charge. It is also typically suggested that you “move the electrons around” every month or so, putting the battery in use. Like all batteries, Li-ions should be recycled when they’re done for.
Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH)
Advantages: NiMH batteries come in almost all standard sizes (like AA, AAA, 9 Volt, C, and D) so they’re a perfect substitute for conventional disposable batteries. These batteries can also provide power longer than alkaline batteries, especially in some power-hungry electronics like digital cameras.
Disadvantages: NiMH batteries have a relatively fast self-discharge rate and can lose up to 40% of their charge in a month when stored. The higher the temperature, the faster the self-discharge rate will be. Newer NiMH batteries, however, claim to have solved the self-discharge problem. Sanyo's Eneloop batteries, for example, claim to lose only 15% of their charge over the course of a year if unused.
Care: To avoid the risk of permanent voltage depletion, do an occasional full drain and recharge cycle for NiMH rechargeable batteries. NiMH batteries can be stored in the freezer to help retain their charge, just make sure they’re tightly sealed from moisture, and allow batteries to come back to room temperature before use. A “smart charger,” while more expensive, will control the charge of batteries via a microprocessor and will prolong battery life and improve performance.