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Environmental electronics

In recent years the topic of e-waste has come to the forefront, as governments struggle with a new and increasingly insidious source of toxic waste at a time when recycling and composting is supposed to reduce our garbage output.

In recent years the topic of e-waste has come to the forefront, as governments struggle with a new and increasingly insidious source of toxic waste at a time when recycling and composting is supposed to reduce our garbage output. Although that issue is far from solved, the implications of e-waste have at least been recognized at this stage. Computer companies are taking more care in manufacturing, and have created recycling programs for the electronics they produce that ensure products will be disposed of safely. In B.C., we now pay a surcharge when purchasing electronics that will cover the costs of safely de-manufacturing and recycling our broken and outdated electronics.

But waste isn’t the only environmental consideration when looking at our growing dependence on technology at work and at home. There’s also the power issue.

For example, computers are never really off. In the past you would physically throw a switch to get your computer started, but these days all you do is touch a button to ramp up the power that’s already flowing through your computer. A computer that’s been fully shut down draws only a small amount of power, about the same as a compact fluorescent light, but sleeping computers can use a full quarter as much power as they do when they’re on.

Some people keep their cell phone chargers plugged in, unaware that they are also constantly drawing power from your home.

Stereos, televisions, major appliances — anything with a built-in clock— are also sucking power from your walls when they’re not in use.

The result? The International Energy Agency estimates that standby energy use is in the range of 200 to 400 terawatt-hours a year worldwide. By way of comparison, all of Italy — a very low tech and powersmart country compared to the U.S. and Canada — uses just 300 terawatt hours per year.

It’s also estimated that as much as 40 per cent of your household power bill is used to feed your home electronics while in standby mode. Overall, probably more than five per cent of all the power we generate is wasted in this way, burning a lot of coal and natural gas.

That’s why it’s called vampire power — you can almost hear the sucking sound.

California recently took an unusual step by proposing a Vampire Slayers Act that would include mandatory labels on all electronics to let consumers know how much devices consume when off, on standby, or in operation.

While partly responsible, the technology industry has not been idle in reducing power consumption. Computers and gadgets are far more energy efficient than in the past, and are only getting better from generation to generation.

For example, the introduction of new processors that use thinner circuitry — 65 nanometres is the new standard — use far less power to move and store information. Flash memory also uses far less power than mechanical hard drives, and memory is taking on a greater role in devices and in the way computers operate to reduce hard drive spin time.

When it comes to screens, LCD screens use far less power than the old cathode ray tube monitors, as well as far less lead — an old CRT screen can use as much as a kilogram of toxic lead.

But while companies are making more efficient products, there are some things that you can do to reduce your power consumption.

The easiest thing is to try to buy appliances that use less power on standby, or don’t have standby modes at all — do you really need a Microwave with a clock when there’s already a clock on the stove? Also, some companies now make devices that shut off when they’re not needed — like my new battery charger, which stops drawing power from the wall once my AAs are topped up.

Televisions are also major energy drains. For example, my 32-inch LCD television draws about 140 watts an hour when on, and 1.43 watts in standby mode. A 42 inch model consumes 236 watts an hour, which is enough power to light an entire house with compact fluorescent bulbs.

Rear projection televisions are the most power-efficient, followed by next generation CRT models, followed by LCD flat screens, followed by plasma screens.

Another way to reduce energy use is to put power bars everywhere. After you shut down your computer, turn off the power bar to shut off your peripherals as well (like your modem, wireless router, printer, etc.). That will stop any vampire drain, while an internal battery in your computer keeps your system clock accurate.

A few power bars in the kitchen can keep your coffee maker, microwave and other gadgets from drawing power when they’re not in use.

It’s also a good idea to take advantage of free power whenever possible. For example, charge your cell phone or MP3 player by plugging it into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter, drawing power off the alternator instead of your fuse box.

Canadian Tire and electronics stores also sell solar chargers that can be used to charge USB devices. If they seem kind of expensive, MetaCafé ( ) has a do-it-yourself solar solution that involves pulling apart a few solar-powered patio lights and some light soldering. A quick search of “solar USB” will direct you to the video.