CES 2010 - Martin LaMonica Leads Panel on Getting Gadgets (and Consumers) to Go Green


Photos via Jaymi Heimbuch

On Saturday afternoon, CNET senior tech tech reporter Martin LaMonica hosted a panel at the "Sustainable Planet" zone entitled Making Electronics Greener One Consumer at a Time. On the panel were Jeff Omelchuck, executive director of EPEAT; Jason Linnell, the executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling; and David Katzmaier, CNET editor and expert on TV energy efficiency. The panel discussed everything from issues in the electronic industry around Energy Star certification, to how to get buyers to care more about green purchases, to recycling profitability. Bringing up interesting points about getting the gadget industry greener, here are some of the highlights of the talk. Shopping for Televisions
Discussing the expense of newer, more energy efficient TVs, David Katzmaier pointed out that choosing TVs using newer technologies such as LED backlighting are more expensive, but not that much more energy efficient than the cheaper LCD TVs on the market. So, consumers can "get a really green TV for a relatively low price." Later in the panel, he mentions that just looking for an Energy Star label on a TV to make a decision really isn't helpful, since most TVs on the shelves have that. Consumers will have to do research apart from reading the box in the store to really know which models are most energy efficient.

Jeff Omelchuck added that by manufacturers going through the steps it takes to become EPEAT certified can help consumers make better choices, and by making devices that are able to receive a high ranking, it doesn't necessarily result in a more expensive product. Ranking systems like EPEAT can ultimately guide consumers, and therefore guide the industry, to be greener. The organization is moving into the consumer zone, recently partnering with Amazon.com to provide information to consumers (which is still very limited), and that by this time next year, televisions will have EPEAT rankings, as well as other smaller consumer devices.

Electronics Recycling
Jason Linnell brought the discussion around to electronics recycling and the issues of profitability. He mentioned that while there are new uses being discovered for the materials within newer televisions, it's the older sets that are currently being recycled and there is "very little of value" within the sets, making the expense of recycling older electronics often higher than the potential profits. Ensuring there is a market for the various materials being pulled from recycled electronics is key to developing robust recycling programs. However, for things like cell phones, they're much more valuable going through a recycling system than going to landfill because there is a healthy reuse market for them.

He pointed out that there are 20 states, including New York City that require manufacturers to do something with their electronics, but that there is a growing volunteer involvement in recycling on the part of manufacturers, and now retailers are getting on board with providing consumers with locations and incentives to recycle. "It's responding to legislation, but it's also responding to consumer demand... It's not easy to keep a big screen TV in your attic, it's inconvenient. So manufacturers are responding to demand on the consumer side to have options for recycling that TV."

Getting Consumers to See Green
Katzmaier stated that while he gets a lot of emails from consumers asking about which TV to buy, there are very few asking which is the greenest TV. There's a lot of growth to be seen in getting consumers interested in being sustainable shoppers. "For the most part it's pretty low on the scale of people's buying decision making. It's not like buying a car where fuel efficiency is really high."

LaMonica responded that a big part of that problem is that people can't really walk into a Best Buy and know what the energy consumption of a television is, especially since the majority sport that Energy Star label, making it practically meaningless.

Omelchuck noted that EPEAT is becoming a way for consumers to quickly see how electronics rate, but that the problem is so few consumers know about it - and so few electronics categories are ranked. But that's changing. He's hoping that in the next year we'll see a rapid expansion in both how many new products are ranked in EPEAT, and consumer awareness around using EPEAT as a way to make green buying decisions. The recent partnership with Amazon.com is one way that is happening. He also noted that it's up to the consumers to demand greener products from manufacturers, so that manufacturers will push technology and product design to be greener. But the consumers have to know that they can demand better products, and that is a matter of spreading awareness about EPEAT.

Embodied Energy
Embodied energy of gadgets was also a topic of disucssion. Omelchuck stated that between 50-70% of a product's energy consumption happens before the consumer even plugs it in, in the form of the energy it takes to mine and refine the materials, manufacture the product, ship the products and so on. He stated that we don't want to just buy new products because they're energy efficient, since the actual energy consumption of that product after factoring in embodied energy is very high. Instead, it's about only replacing products when you really need to, and using what you have more widely. LaMonica pointed out that we're still a long way off from having heirloom products, where we simply continue to upgrade rather than replace, but that it's an appealing idea.

Katzmaier went on to say that developing heirloom products is different for devices like televisions which can have a 10 or 15 year lifespan, versus cell phones where the technology changes rapidly, and to the point where an upgrade isn't possible.

Omelchuck stated, "Energy will take care of itself. We as consumers have a vital role in creating devices that go beyond just energy efficiency."

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Tags: Electronics | Energy Efficiency | E-Waste | Recycling

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