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9 Jun 2011

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Product's green-ness often in eye of the beholder.

 
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(Source: USA Today) Ask most people buying computers, TVs, wireless phones and other electronics gear if they'd like to be more environmentally responsible when making such purchases, and they will almost certainly say yes. But if you ask how they plan to go green, many won't have a clear answer.

It's no wonder. Products take on different shades of green, of course, relating to the materials contained within them, energy use, packaging, product longevity and other factors. And while certain products have more obvious eco-friendly bonafides, others aren't quite as evident.

In the former camp is the Samsung Evergreen from AT&T, unveiled last fall. The $30 texting phone is built with 70% recycled post-consumer plastics and packaging that utilizes 80% recycled post-consumer paper. Or the $50 Samsung Replenish, an Android phone sold by Sprint that's made partly of recyclable materials and is available with a solar charging accessory.

But most consumer electronics products and PCs don't hit you over the head with a green message. "Our philosophy is we don't want to have green products and brown products," says Mary Jacques, senior engineer for global environmental affairs at computer maker Lenovo. "All of our products have to meet the same requirements."

To be sure, typical gadget buyers still think first of the factors they have always deemed important, notably a product's features and price. That said, Consumer Electronics Association economist Shawn DuBravac says, "We have seen over the years the environmental attributes for a product increase in importance."

The industry is trying to dispel the notion that buying green means compromising on state of the art.

Consider flat-panel digital TVs. Some consumers might assume that the large-screen TVs in vogue today are drains on the environment compared with the sets of yesteryear. But Peter Fannon, vice president of technology policy at Panasonic, insists they are vastly more efficient than their smaller and dumber predecessor, the tube TV. Fannon says 270 watts was the norm in most popular 27-inch tube-style TVs from a few years ago. Today's 42- and 50-inch plasmas, he says, measure 69 to 99 watts.

Environmental worthiness

Certainly, the top names in the business are paying homage to green tech, including Apple and Google.

Google is getting behind home automation with the Android at Home initiative. The search giant recently teamed with Lighting Sciences to develop a prototypical energy-efficient 60-watt-equivalent LED light bulb that can be remotely controlled by an Android smartphone or tablet. It is expected out by year's end. Using the location smarts built into your phone, you might be able to turn on lights just by entering a room.

Apple has been selling green for a while and makes it easier than most in clueing customers in on the environmental worthiness of its products. The company's website provides exhaustive details on each of its products, down to power consumption, materials used and greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, if you were considering the 27-inch iMac, a visit to the site reveals the machine has arsenic-free display glass and PVC-free internal cables. Arsenic and PVC both are considered environmental toxins. You can summon an environmental report for the iMac with charts that, among other things, reveal its packaging breakdown.

All of Apple's computers exceed Energy Star version 5.0 guidelines as well as so-called EPEAT Gold standards. (EPEAT is short for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, which measures such factors as the materials used in a product and its longevity.)

Of course, different organizations rank companies' environmental soundness based on different criteria. In its latest guide to green electronics.

Greenpeace ranks Apple in the middle of the 18 companies included on its most recent list. Nokia and Sony Ericsson are Nos. 1 and 2 on the list. Microsoft and Nintendo are at the bottom.

Greenpeace rates companies according to policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change. Underwriters Laboratories also validates environmental claims. Just this week, the Samsung Replenish became the first phone to receive a UL Environment certification.

Steven Castle, executive editor of Electronic House and co-founder of GreenTech Advocates, frets about planned obsolescence. By way of example he asks, "How green can you be if you're going to run out and buy an iPhone 5 so soon after the iPhone 4?" (Not that an iPhone 5 has been introduced — yet.)

The quest for innovation and profit means there will always be a next version just around the corner. But the hope remains that the older gear still has enough going for it that it becomes a viable hand-me-down, certainly true of recent iPhones.

Targeting ‘vampire draw’

Some products are meant to tame energy usage in other devices. The ThinkEco modlet, or modern electrical outlet, automatically turns off power to your appliances when they're not needed. You plug the modlet into a regular outlet and plug appliances in. You can monitor your power consumption via the Web. Cost is $335 for a starter kit that includes five modlets, a USB receiver and software.

The $30 AT&T Zero universal charger kit works with cellphones, digital cameras and other USB-capable devices. The idea is that it can eliminate what's called "vampire draw," in which a plugged-in charger continues to draw electricity even when it's not connected to a device. A battery-operated sensor inside the Zero charger does the trick.

AT&T claims that if all its 80 million customers switched to the charger, they could save $6.9 million in electricity and 79 million pounds in carbon dioxide emissions each year. That's enough electricity saved, the company says, to power 5,137 houses for a year.

Accessory maker Belkin's green offerings include the $40 Conserve Switch surge protector. It comes with a remote that with one click lets you shut off power from 60 feet away, including standby power, to all computer system components. The remote controls six outlets (for such things as monitors, printers and external hard drives). But two of the outlets are "always-on," for devices, such as a wireless router, that you don't want to turn off.

Meanwhile, at $140, the Joos Orange solar charger from Solar Components isn't particularly cheap, small or light. (It is tablet size and weighs about a pound and a half.) But the company says the waterproof mobile charger operates up to 20 times longer than rival solar chargers, which, in many instances, haven't proved to be all that reliable. And Solar Components promises it will work even when there isn't much sun.

For better or worse, the onus is still very much on the consumer to weigh the green-ness of one product vs. another. And that is not an easy calculation.

It would help if all the major players of tech would be transparent about how their products meet lofty environmental standards.

Product's green-ness often in eye of the beholder.



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