How to Go Green: Gadgets

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Technology is an essential part of daily life, from cell phones to televisions, music players to laptops. Yet our reliance on electronics also has a significant impact on the environment. But don't despair! There are countless ways to green up your gadgetry--or even use your gadgets for environmental causes--and we have information tips, guides, fix-it solutions and facts all in one place to help you go green with your technology.

Gadgets: The green impact

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Individually, gadgets might not seem like such energy hogs. However, take a moment to count how many gadgets you use. Gameboys and Play Stations, cell phones and Palm Pilots, alarm clocks and digital cameras. When we start to add up how many things we use on a regular basis, recharge by plugging in to the wall or popping in new batteries, or toss into the trash when they break, we realize that they make a serious impact. The sheer volume is enough to make us think twice about our consumption -- over 5 billion cell phone subscriptions (and far more cell phones) worldwide, about 1.4 billion television sets worldwide, well over 1 billion computers worldwide, and so many more devices we can barely count them. The environmental impacts are equally as difficult to tally.

Gadgets: Life cycle impacts

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Not only do we have to look at energy use while we're running them, but at their entire life cycle. Measuring the impact our devices have on the environment means looking at them from cradle to cradle. Using the most environmentally friendly materials, manufacturing processes, and power sources, as well as ensuring they are properly recycled or repurposed at the end of their lifetimes are all essential elements of greening up our gadgets.

Getting greener gadgets

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You might be thinking that your favorite electronics are now becoming a headache. But don't despair! We can definitely enjoy our devices while still helping to lighten their footprint. Doing simple things like charging properly, checking out Energy Star and Consumer Reports for input before purchasing, taking advantage of free recycling programs, or even making some money off our old devices are all ways we can seamlessly shift into eco-friendly gadget use. You don't have to ditch your well-loved cell phone or favorite game player to still go green. In fact, hanging on to your old devices for as long as possible before upgrading is one of the greenest things you can do.

In this guide, we'll talk about easy things you can do to green up your gadgetry, some of the seriously cool science behind advancements in better gadgets, and ways to get more involved in cleaning up all those devices we use on a daily bases and often don't even think twice about.

Top Green Gadgets Tips

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  1. Get Expert Input Before Buying
    Take a look at Energy Star ratings, EPEAT ratings, Consumer Reports, and other expert sources to help you make comparisons among gadgets before purchasing. This will help you find the most energy efficient and eco-friendly items available to you.
  2. Buy Used
    Buying a pre-owned electronic accomplishes two excellent goals. First, you help to extend the lifetime of the gadget, lowering its carbon footprint, and secondly, you save money. With the rate at which manufacturers churn out new gadgets, buying barely used gadgets that are in great shape is an easy task and usually is much less expensive, even for the latest gear. There are great buyback companies such as TechForward that sell refurbished electronics, and places like Craigslist and eBay are also good places to look. Of course, the manufacturers usually offer refurbished gear at reduced prices as well. You might even find what you're seeking free of charge on networks like Freecycle. Read our list of buyback programs, and consider using one of them for your next purchase.
  3. Buy Recycled and Recyclable Gadgets
    Check out what materials are used in the product and go for gadgets that use low impact materials that are recycled or sustainably obtained. It is tough, so far, to find new gadgets made of recycled materials, but not impossible. If the device you're purchasing isn't made with any recycled materials, at least ensure that it is recyclable. If you want to go a step further, write to the company that makes the product you're after and let them know you're only interested in purchasing if they make greener choices in their production.

Charge Gadgets With Renewable Energy

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Nope, you don't have to invest in solar panels on your house, or a wind turbine in your yard. There are small, personal charging devices that use solar or wind to power your gadgets. In fact, the off-grid chargers for gadgets is a booming market already worth over $2 billion, so your choices are vast and growing. There chargers that can soak up energy all day so you can plug in and recharge your gear at night, or even solar chargers that double as iPhone skins. For wind power, check out the Hymini wind turbine that can charge your cell phone or MP3 player just by sticking it out the window or taking it with you on a bike ride. And a popular charger that uses kinetic energy is the YoGen. Note: Most everything today is rechargeable. But just in case you're checking out something that isn't, be sure to go with rechargeable batteries, and ditch the alkaline. Go with Lithium Ion.

Slay Vampire Power.

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For true gadget lovers, this may be the tip you enjoy most because you get to green your gadgets with more gadgets. Vampire power is the energy used by devices when they're plugged in but not turned on. Yep, even when devices are supposed to be "off" they're really not entirely off. Manufacturers are getting better at reducing how much energy their devices use while off or in stand-by mode, but you can do your part too. Prevent wasted energy first by unplugging any devices not in use or that are fully charged. Then, try using devices like smart power strips that cut the power supply to devices that no longer need it. Companies like Embertecand TrickleStar have several kinds of great devices that help you save loads of energy.

Make Full Use of A Gadget's Features To Avoid Buying More.

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Many of our gadgets are multifunctional so the best way to cut down on gadget consumption is to actually use all those features. This helps not only extend the usefulness of a gadget and make it fully worth the money you put down for it, but it also cuts down on the number of gadgets you feel you need or want in your life. Additionally, it cuts down on how many things you need to continually charge up. For instance, most cell phones can now act as alarm clocks, calculators, PDAs, cameras and music players. There's five gadgets no longer needed by making full use of your cell phone. We call people who make smart use of a small handful of devices Gadget Minimalists, and they save a TON of money of Gadget Gottahaveits.

Avoid Ooh-Shiny Syndrome & Use A Single Gadget For As Long As Possible.

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While some technology changes so quickly that this might not be possible, for the majority of gadgets you can get years of loyal use out of them before it is time to upgrade. This is especially true with cell phones, handheld gaming devices, PDAs and similar gadgets. While it is tempting to get a new phone when you renew your contract, or a new laptop when the faster, smaller version hits stores, ask yourself if you really need it and weigh your options before replacing your gear. If you're feeling the itch, check out websites like Last Year's Model that reminds us why it's awesome to avoid unnecessary upgrades.

Use Old Gadgets To Make Money.

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Buyback programs aren't only great places to look for new gadgets, they're also a perfect place for getting rid of your old items if you've decided to upgrade to newer versions. Buyback programs buy your old gear, refurbish it and resell it. It keeps gadgets in the loop much longer, and puts a little green in your pocket and your heart.

Recycle Your Old Gadgets!

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If you have a device that has reached the end of its useful life, you definitely don't want to toss it. Avoid hazardous e-waste by utilizing one of the growing number of free recycling programs. Many manufacturers like Toshiba will take back old gear for free, helping to make disposal easy on you and the earth. Check out local electronics stores, or check online for free recycling programs in your area. But be very sure that you're turning your electronics in to a responsible recycler -- one that promises not to export to e-waste dumps and abides by BAN guidelines. Check eStewards for listings of just such recyclers.

Offset Your Gadgets' Carbon Footprint.

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Even if you implement all the tips above, it's likely your gadget will still make a carbon footprint. You can offset this by purchasing carbon offsets online. Your money goes directly toward programs that reduce carbon emissions. Some manufacturers make it super easy by allowing customers to purchase carbon offsets when they buy their new device.

Interesting Facts About Green Gadgets

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  • 1,400: The dollar amount the average American household spends on new electronics annually.
  • 20-40: Number of gadgets the average American keeps on stand by, that suck up energy even when turned off. Televisions, computers, electric toothbrushes, phones, radios are more all use up energy and money when they aren't even in use.
  • 1%: The total percent of carbon dioxide emissions emitted each year from devices left on stand by.
  • 230 million: The number of products with battery charging systems currently in use in American homes and businesses.
  • 1.5 billion: The number of external power adapters, also known as power supplies, currently in use to power small electronic devices--that's about five for every person. The total electricity flowing through all types of power supplies makes up about 11% of the national electric bill.
  • 3 million: Tons of household electronics tossed by Americans in 2006.
  • 700 million: The number of used cell phones in the US today. Each of the 140 million cell phone users discards their old phone for a new one every 14 to 18 months.
  • 300 million: Number of obsolete computers in the U.S. today.
  • 70%: The percentage of e-waste out of the entire toxic waste stream of landfills. In addition to valuable metals like aluminum, electronics often contain hazardous materials like lead and mercury.
  • 50%: The percent of a computer that is recycled. The rest is dumped. Non-recyclable components of a single computer may contain almost 2 kilograms of lead.
  • 75-80%: The percentage of old computers from the United States wind up in Asian countries such as India and China, where recycling costs are much lower.
  • 500 million:Number of consumer electronics devices sold in the US in 2008.
  • 530: The pounds of fossil fuels it takes to manufacture one computer and monitor. It also requires 48 pounds of chemicals and 1.5 tons of water.
  • 81%: Percent of a desktop's lifetime energy consumption that is used just to make it. Only a small fraction of a desktop's total energy consumption is consumed in actually using it.

Sources: Good magazine, Energy Star, New York Times, PaceButler, Earth911, GRIDA, Computer Take Back.

Green Gadgets: Tech, Renewable Energy & Batteries

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Personal Solar Chargers and Wind Chargers for Gadgets

Renewable energy chargers that are portable and not extraordinarily expensive are thankfully getting more commonplace. These make charging up your gadgets with sun and wind possible. While they don't provide energy as cheaply as plugging into the wall when you factor in their purchase price, the energy used for your gadgets is at least clean and will, eventually, be free.

Portable wind-powered chargers
The number of portable wind-powered chargers for gadgets is growing. Back in 2007, we saw the Hymini make its debut and it was one of the rare few. Now we have other competitors, including the MiniKin, or the Kinesis solar and wind hybrid. Wind chargers are fairly inexpensive, but not necessarily as powerful or convenient as solar chargers. Plus, despite concepts and prototypes like the microBelt, solar chargers are already available in a wider variety of energy generation capabilities with different pricing that can fit many budgets.

Portable solar-powered chargers
The easiest charger to obtain is a solar charger because there is a wider selection -- you can find anything from a small, portable solar unit that will give you a modest trickle charge in emergencies, to large blanket-like solar fold-outs that can power up laptops. While there is a large variety, most solar chargers you'll come across can easily handle gathering the energy needed for cell phones, music players, digital cameras and other smaller handheld gadgets, which is most likely what you're looking for. Charging more energy intensive electronics like television sets and home entertainment systems would make it more practical to look into a solar array for a home. But gadget-wise, you're pretty well covered with what is available on the market.

For an idea of what is available for laptops and smaller devices, you can check out our buy green guide for solar chargers, which includes DIY battery hacks as well. But more and more, solar cells are being integrated into devices and options are expanding daily.

Better gadget batteries and fuel cell technology
While our ability to use the sun and wind to power our gadgets is increasing, so too is battery technology. Improved batteries that hold charges longer and maintain the ability to charge to full capacity are coming out of labs regularly. Additionally, alternative batteries are being created. These come in the form of ultracapacitors and fuel cells.

Ultracapacitors: The new battery?
Currently, ultracapacitors can't store as much energy as the popular Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries -- more on those from HowStuffWorks -- yet they can recharge in a fraction of the time and never lose their charging capacity. Scientists are working on the storage flaw of ultracapcitors, mainly through increasing the surface area of the electrodes and using better materials to store the charge. This could spell a major breakthrough in our ability to rapidly recharge our gadgets (not to mention electric cars) and reduce or eliminate our dependence on batteries. The other major issue to contend with is pricing - they are far more expensive than Li-Ion batteries.

Medis fuel cell photo

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch
Fuel Cells

A second alternative to batteries that researchers are working on at a lightning pace is fuel cells for gadgets. Mobion is a company at the leading edge of this technology, and is working with Toshiba to create laptops, cell phones, GPS devices and other hand held gadgets that run on small fuel cells. They hold their capacity for a charge far longer than Lithium Ion batteries, are highly efficient, and hold the potential for a power supply that never needs a cord. The issue with this, of course, is that users will need replacement cartridges of methanol.

Another company getting a lot of attention is Horizon Fuel Cells, with their table-top generators. Fuel cells use methanol cartridges for energy. But again, their products also require cartridges -- non-refillable cartridges.

The environmental impact of producing replacement cartridges isn't yet known because the technology hasn't quite arrived, but it will be something to take into consideration as we find better and better alternatives to batteries.

Where to Get Green Gadgets

You can get green gadgets at ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, and Nokia.
Green gadget retailers and buy-back programs include Gazelle, TechForward,
NextWorth, BuyMyTronics, Cell For Cash, CollectiveGood, and Flipswap.