Making Greener Gadgets a Reality

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • Starre Vartan Ethical Travel and Science Writer, Author, 'The Eco Chick Guide to Life,'

Hey, you, on your Crackberry! You know those fun gadgets that we all love sooooo much? Not only that PDA in your sweaty palm, but also mobile phones, iPods, laptops, GPS's, and their buzzy, addictive ilk? Well, they're not so good for the planet. They create tons of ewaste and eat up electricity, adding carbon dioxide and other global warming gases to the atmosphere. But I'll share a secret; even though I'm a treehugging Eco Chick, I'm no Luddite. I'll admit to indulging my attraction to the next cool thing even though I know my digital camera, Macbook, iPod, and mobile phone are environmentally unfriendly. But I've found some work-arounds to share with you, so we can have our bleeping toys and text on them too.

Check out four easy ways to green your electronics below. While you're busy with that, I'll be checking out the Greener Gadgets Conference in New York City this Friday, where electronics guys from Nokia and HP will be sharing how their companies are working to reduce their companies' impact on a macro level, and designers and other creatives will be showing us what the next generation of toys will look and act like. I'll report back on the green gossip from the conference, but until then, try these tips:

Recycle the old! Most gadgets contain heavy metals that eventually leach into groundwater when landfilled or contribute to air pollution if they're incinerated. Mercury and cadmium are just two of the many toxic substances that are used in electronics. There are no safe levels of exposure to these bad boys for humans or animals. And due to our negligence in the past, there's already serious doses of them floating around in our air and water -- and they bioaccumulate. This means that these metals (and other toxins) are already present in all of our bodies. They get stored over time in our tissues, and are almost impossible to get out. Heavy metals are especially toxic for women of childbearing age (since high enough doses can harm growing fetuses) and children, since they have smaller bodies that are less able to handle toxins. Other chemicals and compounds that are commonly found in electronics that have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems include bromine, arsenic and PVC.

The good news is that its easier than ever to recycle and keep this stuff out of our environment; Staples now takes almost all electronics back through their Eco-Easy campaign. You can take mice, keyboards, rechargable batteries, MP3 players, phones and more to any Staples, regardless of whether you bought it there, for easy, free recycling (large items like faxes and monitors cost $10 to recycle).

Turn It Off! If you're going to be away from your desktop or laptop for more than a couple hours, shut it down. New computers are designed to be turned on and off more often, and you'll save money and energy when you do. If you leave your computer on all day and night, watching those screensavers go by ends up using 1500 pounds of CO2 over a year AND shortens the life of your unit. You can also save energy by setting your computer to 'sleep' or 'hibernate' when you haven't used it for a few minutes. (Under System Preferences, choose Energy Saver on a Mac. On a PC look in the Control Panel and then under Power Options). If you have the choice, use a laptop instead of a desktop; they use 90% less power.

You can also fight global warming when your computer is on, but unused or minimally used, by using its computing power to run climate models for scientists. Check out The Nature Conservancy's coverage of harnessing the power of distributed computer networks.

Charge Up With Green Power! Try a solar- or wind-powered charger for your portable devices. The Hymini stores wind (clip it to your bike while you ride to work!) or solar energy to charge up everything from cameras to cellies. There's also the Solio, a solar-powered charger which has gotten mixed reviews, but remember, these are just the first generation of these devices, with improved versions coming soon.

Demand Green Gadgets! Apple just released the very eco-friendly Macbook Air after years of pressure (it's that gorgeous, skinny laptop that is so slim it fits inside a manila envelope) from Greenpeace and green bloggers like myself. The Air contains no mercury, bromine, arsenic or PVC, and it's built in a recyclable aluminum case. Apple is even using less packaging, but the company still has a way to go before it is a truly green company. Check out Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics for regularly updated details on how Sony, Dell, Toshiba and others stack up, and how you can use your consumer power to push for eco-friendly electronics.