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. 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surcharge when purchasing electronics that will cover the costs of safely de-manufacturing and recycling our broken and outdated electronics.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.

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