The computers and mobile phones you buy can help—or hurt—the planet.
By Allan Richter
The television that delivers your nightly news. The mobile phone you use to give your husband a last-minute shopping list. The computer you download your favorite recipes to.
The routine uses of these technology products may make them sound innocuous enough, but these devices may have a lurid environmental history. Many consumer electronics products rely on noxious chemicals, sop up excessive power and may very well, at the end of their lifecycle, pollute the skies and water supplies of developing nations overseas, environmentalists say.
Metals such as lead and mercury in consumer technology products can be toxic to their users. And chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants (BFR) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the latter used in many plastics, can end up as waste that works its way to impoverished countries. Once overseas, the products are often burned to make it easier to recover copper and gold wiring and other scrap metal earmarked for the black market.
More consumers are becoming aware of electronics recycling programs, but good intentions alone may not stem the problem, says activist Casey Harrell, who coordinates the six-year-old global consumer electronics environmental campaign for the watchdog group Greenpeace.
“A lot of people want to do good and know a little about this issue, so they send their electronics to a recycler rather than the local municipal waste collector,” says Harrell. “These third-party recyclers can pay a premium to deal with the waste in an upstanding proper way or ship it for pennies on these big container ships that are already coming to us with products from China and elsewhere that would otherwise go back to these places empty.”
The US has no laws prohibiting the export of toxic waste, Greenpeace says, and state and municipal laws on waste collection are spotty.
Nonetheless, consumer electronics manufacturers are making significant environmental strides, Greenpeace says, with many overcoming technical hurdles to phasing out PVC and BFRs. Harrell partly attributes that progress to innovations spurred by consumer demand.
“By no means are there electronics on the market that are completely 100% safe, with nothing toxic or hazardous,” Harrell says, “but many of these companies have reached a crucial threshold by taking enough toxic chemicals, and the most hazardous ones, out of their products. They’re at a point now where they’re willing to provide some sort of financial mechanism to take back these products at end of life rather than … lobbying as hard as they can, which they have historically done, to make sure they had no financial responsibility in dealing with electronic waste.”
Greenpeace issued high marks to the consumer electronics sector in the organization’s third annual industry report, released January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Greenpeace reviewed seven product categories—notebooks, desktops, netbooks, smart phones (capable of other applications), mobile phones, monitors and TVs.
Cellphones Lead the Pack
Mobile phone manufacturers made the most progress, with most market leaders producing halogen-free phones, the Greenpeace report said. Those are expected to make up 60% of the market this year. Personal computer makers were the next most successful, with 53% of the PC market expected to be halogen-free this year. Halogen-free components are expected to be widely available by year’s end, Greenpeace said.
TV makers have made the least progress, with only 21% of the TV market projected to be PVC- and BFR-free this year. The obstacle: relatively few available PVC- and BFR-free components.
Because of their size, mobile phones draw less heat than computers and TVs—one reason, Harrell says, that phone manufacturers have more readily removed harmful chemicals that prevent fires.
But TV manufacturers have succeeded in dramatically lowering their products’ energy consumption, said a study by the Consumer Electronics Association released last month. The CEA examined digital TV models produced between 2003 and 2010 in both active and standby modes on high-definition liquid crystal (LCD) and plasma display models with screen sizes ranging from 13 to 65 inches. For example, plasma TV standby use fell 85% from 2008 to 2010, the CEA said. The decreases were driven by intense competition among TV makers, the voluntary Energy Star labeling program, and because digital technology favors less heat, said Gary Shapiro, the trade group’s chief executive. LCD TVs will account for 82% of TV display sales this year, the CEA study said.
“In just a few years, digital TVs have achieved energy savings which took their power-hungry analog predecessors several decades to achieve,” Shapiro said. Energy consumption will drop even further, he said, as light emitting diodes, or LEDs, rapidly replace the standard fluorescent backlighting for LCD TVs.
Cost a Factor
Costs weigh heavily on the green electronics market. Because the European Union has more stringent environmental laws than other regions, consumer electronics makers will ultimately have to meet the highest standards throughout their supply chains, Greenpeace says. “These global companies make their stuff through a very long supply chain,” Harrell says. “They are made en masse and they don’t want dual production lines.”
Similarly, many consumers will not buy green products—or bother to recycle those that aren’t—if the products and the recycling programs are not cost-effective. Environmental advocates promote green electronics as less expensive when total cost of ownership—in energy savings and added trade-up value, for example—is taken into account.
“If you give consumers a low-cost way to return stuff, especially on the big products, they’ll return them,” said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD Group, a Port Washington, New York, research firm. “But it has to be low cost and pretty seamless to them. If they have to do a lot of work, they’re not going to do it.”
Whether you give your old computers, TV sets or other electronic waste to a municipal waste collector or a third-party recycler, there is little way of knowing if that waste was indeed recycled properly, environmental activists say.
Electronic waste, which can contain toxic materials such as mercury, is often shipped overseas, to developing countries, where it is burned for valuable metal content in open-air containers, polluting the air and groundwater.
A number of environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, recommend that consumers check with the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit, for a local recycler that is audited and certified by the group as employing responsible recycling practices. These include agreements not to export hazardous waste or to dump it in US landfills.
Consumers can find responsible, local recyclers through the Basel Action Network’s site at
Responsible recycling, particularly of electronic waste, can help alleviate a problem environmentalists continue to wrestle with when it comes to consumer electronics: the products’ ever-shortening obsolescence.
Greenpeace activist Casey Harrell bemoaned the business model of many consumer electronics companies that is built around rapid product replacement. “We’re using these products for much less time before we go and get a new one,” Harrell says. “People get a new cell phone just barely over 12 months. A laptop is down to a little under two years. These things are designed for quick disposal.”