Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How To Green Your Electronics

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.

Guide Navigation

Top Ten TipsBigger OptionsBy the NumbersGetting TechieCase StudiesFurther InformationGet IT!Take me home. Back To Top Λ

Top 10 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 “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]

Back To Top Λ solar-chargers.jpg (The Solio and FreeLoader solar chargers)

Hard Core

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.

5. USB-it

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.

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By the Numbers

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)

Back To Top Λ Pure-Malt-Speakers.jpg (Pioneer’s “Pure Malt Speakers” made from wood reclaimed from whiskey barrels)

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% 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.

(many of these battery facts gathered from GreenBatteries.com) Back To Top Λ

From the Archives

The TH 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. If you can’t find an answer to your question, feel free to drop us a line: tips "at" treehugger "dot" com


As computers do more and more for us (and we do more for them), they gobble up more energy. Here are some computer posts that have come across the pages of TreeHugger.

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.

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.

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.

Here’s a universal remote that never needs batteries.

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.

A wooden prototype camera from Olympus.

Check out NiMH battery charging systems from GP.

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

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 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.

Sundance Solar’s light, folding charger, (this one does laptops)

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

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

Back To Top Λ wattson.jpg (The Wattson home energy monitor)

further reading

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

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.

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Where to Get it!

Battery Recharger

Rechargeables Online

Mega Batteries

Wattson home energy monitor

Solar Jacket

Soldius Golf Bag


Voltaic Backpack

Freitag recycled iPod cases

Native Energy

Bullfrog Power


Bonneville Energy Fund and Green Tags

Renewable Choice Energy

nimh-chargers.jpg (portable nickel metal hydride NiMH chargers)

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