Earth Day: The State of Green Electronics

We’ve made big strides in energy efficiency and e-cycling, but …

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Given that it’s Earth Day, instead of regaling you with all sorts “green” propaganda, I thought it would be interesting to provide you with my semi-expert but completely subjective “State of Green Electronics” analysis of—you know—how green our electronics are.

Not very.

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It’s not that we haven’t made progress. Within the last year alone, the concept of green and energy-efficient electronics has gone from a marginal, still-sort-of-earthy-crunchy thing to totally acceptable and practically the norm. The new Energy Star specification for digital TVs raised the energy-efficiency bar by having qualifications for active or “on” states—as in when the TV is actually showing an image. And manufacturers of both LCD and plasma TVs responded with hundreds of Energy Star-qualifying models.

There are so many new Energy Star TVs, in fact, that a second tier of even more stringent standards may be considered. You can even have a green home theater—sort of—that runs on solar panels.

Electronics that are RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances)-compliant have become so popular that it almost isn’t worth noting any more. Many major electronics manufacturers make nearly all their products to RoHS standards for sale in worldwide markets. And the amounts of harmful lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants and other toxic no-nos used in our electronics are presumably on the decline.

Nearly everyone now knows what a CFL is (not just Canadian Football League) and that the compact fluorescents contain very small amounts of mercury. LEDs (light emitting diode) lamps are becoming more available—and they’re even more efficient and last longer. Most people generally know what vampire or standby power is and that they can stop wasting electricity with switchable or smart surge suppressors.

Energy monitoring, too, is on the rise, as many watch their electric bills or install solar panels and like to see how much juice they’re using without waiting for a monthly bill. The folks who sell the Power Cost Monitor that attaches to an electric meter reported a spike in interest after web titan Google announced its energy monitoring software development. A Twittering energy monitoring device even won the recent Greener Gadgets competition. We’ll all likely have some form of electronic energy monitoring in a few years.

Manufacturers have also gotten on a smaller packaging kick—which saves them money and resources as well—and they are offering many more electronics recycling options.

And this is just the tip of the green electronics iceberg.

So what’s “not very” green about our green electronics?

For one, all this progress really just a start. TVs, computers and a few other electronics may be getting more and more energy efficient, but what of DVD players, amplifiers, whole-house audio and control systems and the host of other mobile and home gadgets at our disposal? I laud companies like NuVo and Knoll Systems that make energy-efficient audio systems and amps, but precious few of other A/V products are truly green.

Not all electronics are RoHS-compliant as well, and if you care about what toxins end up in landfills and our groundwater, you should find out if the company you wish to purchase electronics from adheres to RoHS standards. CFLs and LEDs are great, but many of us still hate the fluorescent lights, and LEDs for the most part remain expensive. (And many of the cheaper ones are unreliable.)

While there’s interest in energy monitoring, the market so far has about as much traction as a football player in a snowstorm. Most true energy monitoring systems that can chart your electric use and savings from a solar or wind-powered system in any kind of detail are expensive, while there are plenty of inexpensive models that won’t give you many details like hourly updates.

All the e-cycling pickup places and programs are great, too. But let’s remember one sad fact: an alarmingly large amount of electronics containing all sorts of bad toxins still end up in landfills—or burn pits in China. Lots of work still needs to be done here.

And the real barometer of whether green electronics are taking hold isn’t in what manufacturers are doing; it’s reflected in the buying habits of actual, electronics consumers. Like you.

Survey after survey of green behavior of electronics consumers comes to me, and the results, like this latest one from Gfk Roper, have become almost laughingly predictable:

  • A very large number of consumers want green features like energy efficiency in their electronics!

  • A smaller but still impressive number of you will actually shop for those features!!
  • Some of you say you will even buy green electronics—and maybe even pay more for them!!!

But then … er … uhhhh … something happens and these so-called “green” electronics aren’t exactly flying off the shelves.

This is could be because:

  1. Nobody’s buying much of anything these days.
  2. People still consider green electronics to be an oxymoron.
  3. There’s still a lot of confusion in the green electronics market.

Or, as I theorize, there simply isn’t adequate signage, product markings and other materials pointing out the energy savings potential of TVs and other green electronics in retail stores. Many manufacturers, after touting the “greenness” of a product to the press, fail to market it as such. Not enough custom electronics installers tout the green and energy-savings benefits of their lighting and control systems. And, of course, there simply aren’t enough green electronics available to tout to our audio and video-crazed culture.

So no, despite the great and wonderful advances in sustainable and energy-efficient designs the consumer electronics industry has made, overall our green electronics are still not very green.

Not that I’m complaining. I’m pleased with the progress that’s been made. And I know I’ll have a heckuva lot more green electronics to write about in the future.

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