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Ways to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Your Electronics
Monday, 30 January 2012 00:00  |  Written by Aaron Lada, Ph.D. | Article

Trashed Electronics photo by D'Arcy NormanWhile new electronics—whether the slimmest iPad or highest-resolution HDTV—create excitement, they also raise environmental issues. Consumer electronics not only add to waste in landfills, they also contain a number of hazardous chemicals. By addressing the associated concerns, many electronics companies are making strides toward creating greener product offerings without compromising on cutting edge features.

Avoiding Landfills
An adverse effect of the rapid advancement of consumer electronics is that items such as desktop computers, laptops, phones and televisions are replaced much more frequently, translating into an increase in the number of items being thrown out. Electronics present a number of environmental problems after disposal. Internal components contain mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Even though each of these toxins is present in only small amounts, they begin to add up to significant levels as more and more are discarded.

Several EPA programs work with electronics manufacturers to reduce the volume of these materials added to landfills. Many companies participate in recycling programs that allow customers to recycle old electronics. In addition, some non-profit groups will accept older electronics, either to sell or put to use. The EPA estimates the rate of recycling for computer products and televisions increased 3% in 2006-07 from the previous six years due in part to mandatory recycling programs instituted in several states.  However, this increase still amounts to a recycling rate of just 18%, leaving some 1.8 million tons of electronics in landfills. Call your local sanitation department to find out its program for safely disposing of electronics so you don't add to this number. Also, consider trying to extend the life of your computer equipment using these tips.

Green by Design
While recycling efforts continue to expand, electronics manufacturers are also implementing changes at almost every level to make their products more environmentally friendly, including eliminating or reducing toxic chemicals and making the products more energy efficient. The Energy Star program, for example, is a collaboration between the EPA and the Department of Energy; those products shown to meet efficiency standards are given the Energy Star logo. While familiar on appliances such as washers, dryers and refrigerators, the logo is becoming more common on electronics. New technologies are also being developed with energy efficiency in mind, such as advancements to make solid-state drives (SSDs) a possible replacement for the traditional magnetic hard drive in computers. Similar to flash-memory drives, SSDs have no moving parts and use significantly less energy. However, several disadvantages remain to be overcome, including higher cost and lower memory capacity. Yet, just as consumer demand led to increased hard-drive capacity and faster processors, it can now lead to less energy use.

Most electronics manufacturers have material on their websites addressing policies toward becoming more environmentally friendly. Several companies are looking to make their products green in every aspect by improving raw-material mining practices, lowering energy use in manufacturing and transport, reducing packaging and making their offices more energy efficient. For example, Dell has a facility powered entirely by renewable energy and Apple has begun to include estimates on the greenhouse-gas emissions generated by each product—which includes manufacturing, transport and consumer use.

Knowledge Is Power
For information on computer products, consumers can turn to the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which evaluates the environmental impact of specific products. This tool rates individual electronic equipment in eight criteria ranging from eliminating toxic materials and using recycled or renewable materials, to energy efficiency. Started with a grant from the EPA, EPEAT will eventually be fully funded by manufacturer-paid fees. This represents another way for consumers to evaluate individual products, and provides another factor to consider when comparing options for computer equipment.

Greenest of the Green
Innovation in electronics has expanded beyond increasing memory and resolution. The environmental impact of electronics may soon become as important a factor in new-purchase decisions as performance specifications. While companies continue to make progress toward greener electronics, consumers also have a role to play in both what they buy and how they recycle old equipment. And as one EcoHearth reader commented, "Too many people are being bamboozled into dumping the energy guzzling gadgets they have to get the latest 'green' gadget. The environmental impact is mainly in the mining for raw materials, manufacture, distribution and disposal and not in its use." With this in mind, the greenest consumer is the non-consumer. So buy it only if you really, really need it.

Additional resources:
The Greenest Consumer Is the Non-Consumer

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Comments (4)add
Written by Rick , January 30, 2012
Teresa, I agree. I've added to the story reminding consumers to forgo consuming whenever possible. I've also added a link at the end to a related blog entry called "The Greenest Consumer Is the Non-Consumer." Thanks for your comment and support of EcoHearth and the Earth.
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Written by Teresa , January 30, 2012
Sorry but I don't see how the latest hi-tech gadgets can be 'green.' Too many people are being bamboozled into dumping the energy guzzling gadgets they have to get the latest 'green' gadget. The environmental impact is mainly in the mining for raw materials, manufacture, distribution and disposal and not in its use.
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Written by Pete Peterson , June 07, 2009
I enjoyed this article very much. I have been a proponent of green and recycling for a long time. My career was in the computer field and I appreciate the expanding use of electronics. This article addresses critical enviromental factors that consumers, manufacturers and all those in the distribution chain must consider.
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Written by Jane Peterson , June 07, 2009
Very enlightening article...reading the facts about consumer electronics and how it is impacting our world is a real eye opener.
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Eco Tip

Grow a garden or a fruit tree. A garden is fun, provides exercise, teaches kids about nature, reduces your carbon footprint (since your food need not be shipped to you), and controls what pesticides or chemicals do or do not go into the food you eat. Not to mention how delicious and nutritious fresh-picked fruits and vegetables are! More tips...

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Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them. — Bill Vaughn   More quotes...