Greening the Gift of Gadgets

It’s the holiday season, and odds are many people are out frantically shopping for last minute gifts, many of which will involve electronics of some sort. If you’re giving the gift of gadgets this year, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, and always, consider–do you or the loved one in mind really NEED the new device, or does an existing device serve the person’s purposes adequately? Will it improve your life in a substantial way, or is this a status symbol? In Western culture in particular, there’s a push to have the latest and greatest gadget. A new version of a device is released and thousands flock to purchase it, even if they barely use half the features on the older version of the device which they already own. There’s a perception that one needs the latest version in order to keep up with new technology, or at least to keep up appearances, and all too often the actual functionality of a device and how it fits a person’s specific situation and needs, is lower on the list of purchasing considerations. Consumers can be fickle, and can suffer from app envy. Stop for a minute and think about this. Watch The Story of Stuff. Then watch The Story of Electronics.

If you still feel compelled to buy, are you able to buy a used version of the device? What about a refurbished version? Many electronics retailers offer refurbished versions of devices for slightly lower prices, which operate just as well as a brand new device. My refurbished wireless router at home is a fine example of the reliability of such items. It’s always desirable to see products reused as much as possible before recycling. Any way in which the product lifecycle can be extended is positive in terms of environmental impacts.See this HowStuffWorks article on How Refurbished Electronics Work.

If for whatever reason a used or refurbished version isn’t an option, take some time to consider the environmental ratings of the products and brands you’re considering. Helpful consumer guides include the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, the latest version of which was just released in November 2012. , and the Good Guide (although currently, the Good Guide only ranks cell phones according to environmental, social, and health criteria). Always look for ENERGY STAR rated devices which will operate more efficiently. Such devices will have the ENERGY STAR logo on them, and you can do some research ahead of time on the program’s web site. Determine whether or not the device you’re interested in is EPEAT registered. EPEAT stands for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, and involves standards for categorizing electronic products at various levels based upon a variety of environmental considerations. The category standards for a given device category are developed with the input of various stakeholders, including those involved in electronics development and purchasing, as well as representatives from governments, environmental advocacy organizations and academia. Contrary to common misconception, EPEAT is a voluntary registry, not a certification in which a third-party issues a product its stamp of approval, as evidenced by Apple’s voluntary decision earlier in the year to remove certain products from the registry, and subsequently voluntarily choose to add them back after public outcry over this decision and criticism related to designs for certain products that made them more difficult to disassemble and/or recycle. See for more on that. Even so, if a product meets EPEAT standards, you can feel confident that its environmental impact has been carefully considered throughout its lifecycle. See this infographic for more on the environmental benefits of EPEAT rated products. Raise Hope for Congo ranks companies on their efforts towards using and investing in conflict-free minerals. (See the “Conflict Minerals” post category of this blog for more information on what conflict minerals are and why they’re important.)

Once you’ve dutifully done that homework, you should be ready to buy, right? Well, if you’re in the U.S., maybe you should further consider whether or not your state has electronics product legislation on the books. See the State & Local page of the SEI web site Law & Policy section to find out and have a summary of the type of law your state has, the devices covered, and a link to the full text of the legislation. Why does this matter? Well, some states (like Illinois, for example) require manufacturers to register or submit recycling plans with a state agency prior to being allowed to sell their products within that state. It’s all part of efforts to ensure that certain electronic devices don’t end up in landfills and that manufacturers are supporting the end-of-life management of their own products (see As a recent article in a National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) newsletter pointed out, some brands are not compliant with state laws. You might want to buy a certain brand because of great holiday deals being offered–but maybe those products aren’t even supposed to be sold in your state! It’s worth checking the NCER resources related to this.

You’ve waded through all these environmental considerations and are feeling good about your choices. The new gadget is wrapped and ready for giving. But then you remember–what should your loved one do with their old device? There are many different options, and what is available to you will depend on your location. A good place to start is the SEI fact sheet on Electronics Take-Back and Donation Programs. A quick way to check for options in your area is to visit the Earth911 web site. And you can always contact your county or municipal recycling coordinator–he or she will be able to tell you whether or not there are collection events offered in your area, and which local retailers and recyclers accept electronics for recycling.

Now for extra points—how environmentally friendly was the gift wrap you used? 🙂

Happy holidays from SEI!

Author: Joy Scrogum

Joy is an Emerging Technologies Resource Specialist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has worked on developing & maintaining online resources for the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable since 2001. She also currently coordinates the Sustainable Electronics Initiative & provides support for zero waste projects, as well as various aspects of ISTC outreach & communications. Key past projects include coordinating the International Sustainable Electronics Competition, developing & teaching ENG 498 "Sustainable Technology: Environmental & Social Impacts of Innovations," & Greening Schools, which focused on making K-12 facilities & curricula more sustainable.