— You can buy an electric car, use recycled plastic and paper, wash your hair with biodegradable shampoo and refrain from burning garbage. But how can a high-definition TV fit into a green lifestyle?
“Every electronic good has an environmental impact,” said Casey Harrell of Greenpeace International. “Some of the biggest are around energy, especially with these HD units, and also their chemicals.”
Consumer electronics industry analyst iSuppli estimates global HDTV shipments will reach 241.2 million units by 2012, up from 97.1 million in 2007. In 2008, iSuppli reported, HDTVs overtook standard TVs as the leading type of TV sold worldwide.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the 275 million TVs in the United States use more than 50 billion kilowatt hours of energy each year, or about 4 percent of all households' electrical use.
The EPA’s voluntary Energy Star program sets different criteria for various products to meet before they can be labeled as compliant. The current Energy Star 3.0 guidelines state that televisions must use at least 30 percent less power than the average set in both powered-on and standby modes. For instance, under the 3.0 guidelines a 50-inch HDTV cannot use more than about 318 watts while powered on.
The guidelines become more stringent with each revision, and when products that meet Energy Star 4.0 arrive on the market next year, their power use will be 40 percent less than the average TV's power needs.
Full specifications for the Energy Star TV standard, a list of compliant HDTVs and an interactive tool for finding Energy Star HDTVs are at the Energy Star Web site.
California may get stricter
Meanwhile, the California Energy Commission recently released what may be the nation's first energy-efficiency requirements for flat-screen TVs. A final vote on the regulation is expected in November.
If the requirements are approved, starting in 2011, retailers in the state would be able to sell only TVs that meet the guidelines of the Energy Star program.
The 2011 standards could reduce energy consumption by about a third, with even more stringent standards in 2013 reducing energy consumption by nearly half. Exempted would be sets that are are larger than 58 inches, many of which are used by businesses in places like shops, bars and hotels.
Generally, plasma HDTVs are more power hungry than LCD models, requiring about three times the energy of cathode-ray tube sets. In contrast, LCD sets use about 43 percent more energy. LED back-lit LCD TVs, where LEDs replace fluorescent tubes to light the screen, use the least amount of power, as much as 50 percent less than a standard LCD HDTV.
It seems the Energy Star logo on HDTV sets is becoming more familiar to consumers.
Enesta Jones of the EPA said a 2007 survey conducted for the agency found 66 percent of consumers “indicate that they are more likely to purchase an item due to the presence of the logo,” she said.
“The most important thing consumers can do when contemplating a TV purchase is to find one of their choice that has earned the EPA's Energy Star. Additionally, when retiring an old TV, make sure to recycle it, as opposed to simply trashing it.”
Recycling a large-screen HDTV is considerably more complicated than separating the trash. Provided you can find a recycling depot that accepts TVs — many only take cell phones and smaller items — the recycler may not be environmentally responsible.
“Unfortunately, most electronics are not collected for proper dismantling,” said Greenpeace's Harrell.
Dismantling includes stripping and shredding materials, as well as recycling, and is “done in factories — stripping, shredding and reuse — within the borders of the country in which the electronic good is used,” he said.
There's reason to be concerned when sets are improperly recycled, and sent to places in Asia or Africa "for open burning," Harrell said. "These units are full of neurotoxins, compounds like PVC plastic and brominated flame retardants. When burned, these chemicals release dioxin, a known carcinogen.
“The EPA estimates that only 13 percent of TVs were collected for proper disposal in 2005," he said. "The rest are either dumped in a landfill or incinerated, or collected by a third-party waste recycler and shipped overseas for open burning.”
Improper recycling and disposal is a health and environmental issue because of the toxins in a TV's components. Older cathode-ray tube TVs contained up to 8 pounds of lead, mostly in the TV's tube. Cathode-ray tube TVs also used a phosphor coating with cadmium, a carcinogen.
LCD HDTVs are illuminated by fluorescent lamps with small amounts of mercury inside. LED back-lit models are mercury-free.
While plasma models don't contain mercury, all HDTVs can harbor brominated flame retardants, which may affect hormonal functions, and PVC plastics that can leech hazardous chemicals when they’re put in a landfill.
Both brominated flame retardants and PVC plastic produce harmful dioxins when burned. Dioxins are synthetic chemicals that can cause cancer and damage reproductive and immune systems.
Most TV companies offer “take-back” programs for HDTVs, led by Sony, whose program started in June 2007. Such programs ensure that TVs won't end up in landfills or be exported to countries where open burning occurs.
Jennifer Boone Bemisderfer of the Consumer Electronics Association sees a positive change in disposal and recycling options.
“There are plenty of recycling options for TVs and other consumer electronics products. Many manufacturers and retailers have voluntarily established nationwide programs for electronics collection and recycling,” she said.
“Sony, with its ‘green glove service’ will even remove your old TV and haul it away for free eco-friendly recycling when you select ‘Premier In-home Delivery’ from Sony Style stores.” It's not completely free; there is a $129 surcharge for “Premier” delivery.
Beside the reduction or elimination of toxic chemicals and responsible recycling programs, HDTV makers are beginning to specifically design sets with the environment in mind.
Sony has historically been highly rated in Greenpeace's “Guide to Greener Electronics,” updated quarterly since 2006, and received the top grade from the Take Back My TV organization for their recycling programs.
The company’s VE5 Eco series of LCD HDTVs (from $1,500 for a 40-inch TV) sets the standard for low energy consumption. The 52-inch VE5 model ($2,400) uses 65 percent less energy than the current Energy Star 3.0 requirement. The 46-inch TV consumes just 90 watts, about the same as an incandescent light bulb.
Mark Small, Sony’s vice president for environment, safety and health, says the company “produces some of the most energy-efficient products without, in most cases, incorporating toxic materials. Our ultimate goal is to produce products that provide our consumers with more value and yet produce no environmental impact or footprint. Until that goal is reached we have not done enough.”
New set every four?
The appetite for new sets is high in the United States, where the average consumer buys a new TV every four years on average, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
Greenpeace’s Harrell cautiously acknowledges the industry's progress. “We still don't have a national law in the U.S. around e-waste collection like many countries do, but we are seeing more voluntary take-back programs from companies, including TV manufacturers like Sony and LG,” he said.
“However, we are at the tip of the iceberg, and the increased frequency of TV sales and shorter lifespan is increasing the overall amount of e-waste. Small progress is being outstripped by planned obsolescence.”