Give greener electronics this holiday season

By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now

If you are looking at the big picture, the Samsung UN55C8000 delivers 55 inches of view. Image: Samsung

If visions of a new computer, an upgraded cell phone or a flat screen TV are dancing in your head this holiday season, you don't necessarily have to feel guilty about it. No one will confuse adding 50 inches of viewing pleasure with planting a tree when it comes to carbon footprint, but bringing that shiny new toy into your home may not be quite the environmental faux pas it used to be.

From design to operation to disposal, electronics are getting a little more eco-friendly. That's a good thing, too, since we seem to be incorporating more and more of them into our daily lives. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, a typical American household features 24 electronic devices, from clock radios to DVDs and Blu-Ray players to computers and TVs.

That can be 24 energy-sucking environmental time bombs…or, with a little research and careful shopping, something a bit less taxing on the power grid and the planet in general.

One way to try to lessen your impact is to look for the Energy Star label. That designation assures that any electronics you are considering are verifiably more energy efficient than others on the market.

Yet another good source is the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT. Products certified by EPEAT meet standards set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in a variety of areas, including choice of materials, design for end of life, life cycle extension, energy conservation, end of life management and packaging.

Of course, everyone is claiming to be some kind of "green" these days. How can the average consumer avoid "greenwashing" and make good choices?

In addition to Energy Star and EPEAT, consider advocacy sites such as Greenzer. You can look up a wide range of electronic items and find their "Greenzer Score," which combines information from Energy Star, EPEAT and other sources Greenzer considers relevant to the product in question.

With all of that mind, here are a few things to look for as you head out to the mall with credit card in hand and the best of intentions in your heart:



Sorting out the relative merits of various makes, models and sizes is about to get a lot easier: That familiar yellow EnergyGuide label seen on home appliances will soon be attached to televisions in stores. TVs manufactured after May 10, 2011 will be required to carry the designation, which currently is used for dishwashers, refrigerators and the like. Consumers will be able to get an estimate of the cost to power a TV for a year and how those costs compare to other similar units.

Until then, you’ll need to do a little more of the homework on your own.

Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are more efficient than plasma, but many true video aficionados find the picture quality lacking. OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) promises better picture quality with higher efficiency, but the technology is in its early stages.

If you want to go big with an LED, the Vizio VF552XVT (a 55-inch screen for about $1,650) and Samsung UN55C8000 (also 55 inches, but more pricey at about $2,900) may be solid options.

Prefer plasma? Panasonic's Viera TC-P54Z1 offers a 54-inch screen in for under $2,000, and Samsung's PN50B850 delivers a 50-inch screen for about $2,100.

In terms of testing and comparing sets currently on the market, the industrious folks at CNET have done much of the heavy lifting. Click here to find out what’s available and what kind of impact that new set is likely to have on both your carbon footprint and monthly electric bill.


China-based Lenovo has carved out a niche in the "green" computing game by becoming one of the first manufacturers to make that commitment part of their corporate mission statement. Lenovo's ThinkPad laptops ($400-$1,300)   contain 85% recycled plastic content, while ThinkVision LCD Monitors ($230 and up) combine 65% post-consumer recycled plastic with 20% post-industrial content.

Lenovo ThinkPad L412. Image: Lenovo

In addition, Lenovo products have earned the Energy Star 5.0 rating, meaning you can expect to trim as much as 60 percent off energy usage. ThinkStation workstations (450-$1,300) deliver an 86% or higher increase in power supply efficiency as measured by EPEAT.

Lenovo’s ThinkCentre ($500 and up) line earned EPEAT's top ratings among desktops, while the ThinkPad series shared the top spots among notebooks with Toshiba’s Portege ($899-$3,499) and Tecra ($839-$1,349) models.

A bit closer to home, Dell recently was named the greenest company in America by Newsweek. The magazine recognized the Texas-based manufacturer for focusing on sustainability in supply chain and operations and diverting 484 million pounds of recycled materials from landfills since 2006.

According to Dell, its OptiPlex ($539 and up) business computers come with energy management features that have saved an estimated $5 billion in energy costs over the past four years. Also, if you purchase a Dell Inspiron Mini 10 ($499.99 and up) or a Dell Streak tablet ($549), each comes in a bamboo package that can be composted for easy disposal.

Cell Phones

Want to be a little greener while texting your friends or checking your Facebook page? There are a few options to consider.

Samsung Blue Earth. Image: Samsung

The first "green" phone from a U.S. carrier was the Motorola Renew W233 ($13-$34.99) for T-Mobile. It's pretty basic, but call quality is good and the battery doesn't drain quickly. Plastic parts are made from recycled batteries, and the ink on the user manual is soy-based.

You'll have to unlock the Samsung Blue Earth ($259 and up) to use a U.S. carrier, but it may be worth it. Blue Earth features solar panels on its rear face that help charge the battery.

The  Sony Ericsson Naite ($119.99 to $139.99) is made from recycled plastic and is power-efficient in standby mode. It also includes a charger compliant with the Energy Star 5.0 standards.

If you are not necessarily looking for a big-ticket item this year, but you'd still like something cool, here are some other ideas that combine fun with peace of mind:

  • Wind-Up/Solar Radio: Kaito's design operates on any of four power sources – wind-up, solar, batteries or plug-in electric.  Twelve hours of sun charges the NI-MH batteries sufficiently to produce 6-8 hours of playing time.  Good for camping or for those pesky natural disasters. List price: $49.95.
  • Crank flashlights: We all make sure to check the batteries in our emergency kits, right? (Uh, sure…) With the Electrilite Crank Flashlight, a dead battery is no problem. Light is generated when you crank the handle, and the device doubles as a cell phone charger for most phones. About a minute of winding produces 30 minutes of light. $19.95
  • HYmini Wind Charger: A handheld, universal charger/adapter harnesses renewable wind and solar power or conventional wall plug power to recharge cell phones, MP3 players, iPods, digital cameras, etc. $74.98
  • Boogie Board Paperless LCD Writing Tablet:  Make lists, take down notes, or just doodle without wasting paper or ink. Write with the included stylus or even a fingernail. The device uses no power until you erase, and the sealed internal battery is good for about 50,000 erasures. Tablet is only 1/8" thick. $39.95

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