Eco-Electronics Buying Guide


If the crowds at Wal-Mart are any indication, this holiday season will be another one full of electronics purchasing. As a recovering Technology Goddess, electronics recycling is near and dear to my heart. So, before you buy that new computer for your honey (or your digitally challenged father) do a little extra research on what goes into your machine, and what you should do with that old pile of junk you’re replacing.

Laptop -v- Desktop
Ah, the age-old question. In case you’re just starting your research, you’ll quickly learn that laptops are much more expensive than desktops. But, according to the Home Energy Diet, desktops use about four times as much energy as laptops. If you want to keep your electricity costs down, go for the laptop. [Another tip: if you’re going to be away from the computer for more than an hour, turn it off. Sleep settings are nice, but still draw power.]

Whatever you get, buy the largest hard drive you can afford. Environmentalist that you are, I’m sure you want to keep your life as paper-free as possible. Large hard drives make it easier to store your digital photos, save music files (no more cd’s!) and scan paper documents. I’m partial to the HP Media Center since it also serves as a perfectly good TV. We have one that is great for watching shows with our cable connection, and it has built-in features that make it easy to work with photos and music. Remember that large hard drive we were just discussing? A Media Center model can also use it to record TV shows, just like a TiVo or Replay TV. Never miss an episode of Macgyver again! Add a pair of decent speakers and there’s your stereo system too. Potentially, one electronic item can be your computer, TV, DVD player and stereo system (you only listen to Internet radio anyway, right?) Less components means less harmful manufacturing, less to recycle, and less space to consume. It also means less electricity even though it is a desktop.

[Update on 12/24/05: ASUSTeK Computer Inc. has introduced the 12.1″ ultra portable U5A Notebook Series. This laptop is a “green” model, with no heavy metals, meeting certain standards.]

The built-in LCD monitors on laptops are much better for the environment than those awful, old-school CRT monitors. CRT monitors are what most people still use, with the boxy, square shape, filled with lead to protect us all from radiation. If you do decide to buy a desktop computer, buy an LCD monitor to go with it. In fact, most retailers are phasing out the sales of traditional CRT monitors because of both personal preference and EPA regulations. See below for info on what to do with your old CRT monitor.

Most people use inkjet printers at home because they’re much less expensive than laser printers. They also use much less power than laser printers, which draw so much electricity they frequently blow fuses (trust me on this one). But what about the ink or toner cartridges? Both inkjet and laser printer cartridges can, and absolutely should, be recycled. Many locations, like office supply superstores and Cartridge World, take your old ink and refurbish it into new, shiny ink. Yes, it’s ok to buy refurbished toner. It works just fine, although Office Managers everywhere gladly pay double the price for new toner. But that’s another story…

What to do with your crappy Pentium 3 with only 256 mb of ram
Don’t even think of dumping this thing. Don’t give it to Goodwill or Salvation Army. Don’t even give it to your church or favorite charity. Trust me on this one. If it makes you crazy to use, no one else wants it either. And if they don’t want it, they don’t want to deal with disposing of it so it may end up in the trash. So just put it in the basement until your town has it’s next Electronics Recycling Event. Or send it to a reputable electronics recycling center. Go to to find a center near you. Make sure you find one that’s pledged to keep your old toy out of a hazardous landfill in another country. The Basel Action Network has an excellent list of companies that have made this promise. They also have some real horror stories about what happens to computers sent to developing countries. Computers, and especially monitors, are filled with hazardous materials like lead and mercury. Not what you want seeping into your water supply.

PC PC Makers
In case you’re in the market for a new server, check out Sun Microsystems new “eco-friendly” cpu. For the rest of us, here are links to some major manufacturer’s statements on the environment. Some of them will accept their computers after they’ve served their purpose.
HP (includes Compaq)

The Ethical Consumer has more details on the pros and cons of specific computer and other electronics manufacturers.

So when you make that electronic holiday purchase, be sure to consider the entire life cycle of your big ticket item. Look for a computer that lives as lightly on the planet as you do.