Last month, the congressional watchdog GAO published a report on high-tech toxic trash exports, and Greenpeace released its ninth annual Guide to Greener Electronics. Here are four ways to keep consumer electronics from harming human health and the environment. Even better, some of them will help you save money at the same time.
Tip #1: Buy electronics from companies with take-back programs
When companies establish take-back programs for used or broken electronics, the high cost of hazardous waste disposal gives them an incentive to eliminate toxic components and design products for easy recycling and reuse. Rather than sticking consumers or municipalities with the dilemma of what to do with complicated unwanted devices, manufacturers collect their own products and -- with smart design -- can turn them into new gadgets instead of trash. To ensure a green ending to your gizmo's life, opt for products from companies (like Nokia, the high-scorer in Greenpeace's latest report) ready to take back what they hath sold. In the meantime, your unwanted devices from manufacturers without these programs can be brought to Best Buy stores around the country.
Tip #2: Extend battery life
Later this week, European Union officials will begin enforcing new restrictions on rechargeable batteries -- a move that the research firm Cleantech Group reports could nudge the market away from toxic components and non-replaceable, built-in batteries. In the meantime, Americans still buy more than 350 million of the pricey, heavy metal-packed capsules every year. With smart maintenance practices, they can be replaced less frequently. For example, lithium-ion batteries, one of the most common types used in laptops and mobile devices, last longer when kept from running below a 40-percent charge. If you have an iPod, you'll get the most bang for your battery buck (make that bucks--at least 49 of them for a replacement battery) if you take it out of the case before charging. Carrying cases can trap heat and compromise battery capacity -- making you plug in more frequently and burn through the battery's limited number of charges sooner. For any device, it's a good idea to keep batteries away from extreme temperatures, allow plenty of circulation, shut off juice-draining non-essential functions, and use a low-power mode whenever possible.
Tip #3: Eliminate excess energy use
It's easy to grab your menagerie of mobile devices and leave chargers plugged in when you dash off to work. But chargers and gizmos left on standby pull electricity even when they seem to be turned off. This vampire power accounts for as much as $2.7 billion-worth of electricity use every year in the U.S., according to Power Management DesignLine. In a typical household, it represents about 5 percent of annual electricity costs, with plasma TVs, computers, and game consoles being some of the thirstiest offenders. If you want to reduce your contribution to the phantom load, you no longer have to run around pulling plugs: smart power strips like APC's Power-Saving Surge Arrest cut the juice automatically, and energy monitors help you figure out where to target your efforts for the biggest results.
Share your tips: Have you slayed vampire power in your home? Tell us how.
Tip #4: Sell or donate unwanted gear
What's the easiest way to avoid sending e-waste to irresponsible recyclers? Give your old gadgets new life in the hands of students and families who can't afford the latest electronics. Sites like eBay and Craigslist make it easy to sell unwanted items, while freecycle.org lets you find people in your city or neighborhood to pick up giveaways. If you'd like help assessing value, erasing personal data, creating a listing, and shipping or trading in an old device, you can turn to the Rethink Initiative. Hosted on eBay, the site represents a coalition of tech companies, anti-toxics groups, philanthropies, the EPA, and other groups working to manage e-waste (and generate business, in some cases) by connecting buyers, sellers and charities -- so you can get that PC-o-saurus or old-school boombox out of your basement and back to work.
Share your tips: Have you sold, donated, or bought used electronics? What advice can you share with others thinking about doing the same?
Read more about energy, e-waste, technology, and recycling:
Green Cell Phone Evolution
Report: EPA Lets Electronic Waste Flow "Virtually Unrestricted"
Google Earth, Underwater
Solar iPhone Case Extends Battery Life
For more practical tips, visit The Green Life.