How to Go Green: Home Electronics

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.


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Top Home Electronics Tips



  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 the "Home Electronics: From the Archives" section 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 an attempt at environmental certification for computers (CPUs, monitors, and notebooks). Released in early 2006, a growing number of products have been registered with EPEAT, and this certification is continuing to pick up steam; learn more at the 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). Even if you don't live in Europe this has a big impact, as any company looking to sell there has to follow the directive. Look for companies that are adhering to--and even going beyond--the RoHS compliance in Europe and around the globe. Learn more from the RoHS UK Homepage and Wikipedia's RoHS page.



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Home Electronics: By the Numbers



  • 15 percent: Percentage of money spent on powering your computer dedicated to computing, worldwide; the rest of the $250 billion is spent on energy wasted in idling.

  • 70 percent: Percentage of waste composed of discarded electronics, out of all hazardous waste.

  • 529 pounds: Amount of fossil fuels required to manufacture a 53-pound computer system (including the monitor), along with 49 pounds of chemicals and 1.5 tons of water.

  • 15 billion: Batteries produced annually worldwide.

  • 40 percent: Of the energy used for electronics in your home is used while these devices are turned off.

  • 1 billion: Kilowatt hours of power each year that could be saved by using energy efficient battery chargers in the US; this in turn would save more than $100 million each year, and prevent the release of more than a million tons of greenhouse gasses.


Sources: Worldchanging, BBC, Green Batteries, Energy Star

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Home Electronics: Getting Techie


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 percent 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 percent 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. (Many of these battery facts gathered from GreenBatteries.com.

Offsetting 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 our guide for How to Go Green: Electricity.

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Where to Get Home Electronics


Batteries
Battery Recharger
Rechargeables Online
Mega Batteries
Solar electronics
Solar Jacket
Soldius Golf Bag
Solio
Voltaic Backpack
Carbon offsets and renewable energy credits
Native Energy
Bullfrog Power
TerraPass
Bonneville Energy Fund and Green Tags
Renewable Choice Energy
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Home Electronics: From the Archives


Dig deeper into these articles on Electronics from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.

Our archives are full of products, policies, and practices that can make your electronics situation a greener one. Browse through the selected links below or try taking a peek at the Science & Technology category. If you know exactly what you are looking for, try a simple search on TreeHugger or Planet Green.

Electronics tips
Get the scoop on electronics gadgety cousins in our guide for How to Go Green: Gadgets.

Listen up! Here are four electronics habits you need to change, post haste.

Learn the ins and outs of hand crank power.

When your electronics have given their all, here's how to recycle them easily at big retailers near you.

Computers
Sun Microsystems' Sun Ray thin client uses 1/40th the energy of a regular desktop.

Take a look at how Windows XP cost the world $25 billion in energy bills, the "Vista landfill effect."

Details on EPEAT green electronics certification that recently became part of a federal mandate in the US.

Greenpeace has assembled a rating system for electronics and computers. Check out their work as well as the controversy and constructive criticism it has aroused.

Ready to recycle your computer? Here's how.

The RoHS standards are creating a new crop of non-toxic computers.

Wal-Mart has big plans for energy-efficient notebook computers costing less than $500.

Looking for something green to nestle your iPod into for safe keeping?
Wooden iPod cases made from reclaimed parts.

Recycled plastic cases for the Nano.

Eco-friendly jute cases.

Handmade bamboo cases for the shuffle.

Tread Cases from Solio are made from re-engineered rubber inner tube for your iPod or solar charger.

Freitag iPod cases are made from recycled truck tarps.

Or perhaps an iPod case made from a reincarnated 45 rpm record.

Saving iPods from the landfill is a trend that's catching on nicely.

Batteries
Kinetic watches from Fossil mean you won't have to change your timepiece's battery again.

TreeHugger's Hank Green reviews the ins and outs of the light and efficient Li-po, or lithium polymer battery. A great post, especially if you like seeing things explode.

With the Battery X-tender alkaline batteries are now rechargeable.

Check out NiMH battery charging systems from GP.

More evidence of the benefits of NiMH batteries over conventional counterparts.

Here's a universal remote that never needs batteries.

Home Energy Monitors
The Wattson home energy monitor is an appliance for Do-It-Yourself Kyoto compliance.

British designer Thomas James Owen has a conceptual design for a sleek in-home energy monitor.

The Mini Power Minder is a clever power strip shuts down your computer's peripherals when the computer itself is shut down.

Stereo speakers
The UK has plans to actually outlaw the notoriously wasteful standby buttons from consumer electronics.

Panasonic has managed to work bamboo fibers into the inner workings of its speakers.

Pioneer's Pure Malt Speakers are crafted from well-aged whiskey barrels (reviewed at CNET).

Tone Tubby amplifier speakers roll their cones with hemp.

Escalante's speakers are recycled and low-VOC/non-toxic for your breathing enjoyment.

Solar and kinetic chargers
In addition to this concise roundup, here are some solar chargers and integrated devises we've covered. Our own Justin Thomas uses a $20 solar charger for all his gizmos.

The Enloop from Sanyo, The Soldius1 for cell phones and MP3 players, and Sundance Solar's light, folding charger, (this one does laptops) are just a few we've seen.

The Votaic solar backpacks and computer bags are TreeHugger favorites.

The foot-powered Freecharge will jumpstart your car or your iPod.

To run your electronics on elbow grease, try a wind-up charger.

Charging your cell phone while riding your bike might seem extraneous, but for the millions of people who have phones, no cars, and unreliable power grids, it makes perfect sense.

This device from Copycat Solar will charge your cell phone or iPod as you ride your bike.

The Solio, reviewed here, is already something of a classic in the solar charger category.

The Freeloader is a tough solar charger for an array of devices.

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Further Reading on Home Electronics


In addition to TreeHugger and Planet Green, other organizations have put together resources that may be helpful as you continue to green your life.

HowStuffWorks has loads of resources on electronics, including the advantages of refurbished electronics and where to recycle electronics when you're done with them.

Apple Computer's electronics recycling site and advice on optimizing battery performance.

Dell's recycling homepage.

Hewlett Packard's recycling homepage.

EPEAT is an attempt to certify green electronics.

WorldChanging talks about "bright green" computers of the future (and why computers use so much energy now).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's site on electronic recycling.

See if someone in your community can use your old electronics by placing them on Freecycle.

Or try to sell your electronics on a community hub such as Craigslist.

Green Batteries has loads of intelligible info on rechargeable batteries.

Batteries in a Portable World: A Handbook on Rechargeable Batteries for Non-Engineers.

Wikipedia's pages on lithium-ion batteries, nickel metal hydride batteries, and rechargeable batteries in general are, of course, invaluable.

BatteryUniversity.com walks readers through the ins and outs of battery tech from beginner to advanced

For questions and answers about iPod battery issues, go to iPodBatteryFAQ.com

The US government's Energy Star homepage.

myGreenElectronics lets you search electronics recycling resources by zip code.

Tags: Electricity | Electronics | Gadgets