by Holly Whitman
How many electronics do you have with you right now? Maybe a laptop, cell phone and a fitness tracker? Add to that the ones you have at home, which probably include another laptop, gaming station, tablet and maybe a smart TV — no matter what, you’re likely pretty well surrounded.
Despite having all those devices you use on a daily basis, though, most people know surprisingly little about them. Read on to learn more about the sustainability of electronics involved in your daily existence, and how to pick out the most eco-friendly electronics and accessories.
Most people will have one of two cell phones, and it’s not exactly a secret as to which two they may be. You’re probably sitting next to an Apple or reading this on a Samsung right now. Those are the popular options.
Most of the major electronics manufacturers have taken public action on sustainability and green manufacturing, but they’re not all created equal. Thankfully, Greenpeace has, as usual, done their due diligence and ranked the leading electronics companies for sustainability. Let’s see what they found:
If you’re looking for a laptop that was manufactured ethically and sustainably, look no further than Apple or HP. These companies received top marks for product categories like “avoidance of hazardous substances in products” and “product life-cycle.” Toshiba, sadly, ranks at the bottom of the list.
Tablets are becoming the hubs of our digital and social lives thanks to their portability. And with tablets now expected to consistently outsell laptops, their “green appeal” is being looked at with renewed intensity. Apple excels here thanks to their commitment to the “avoidance of hazardous substances in products,” while crowd favorite Samsung remains committed to long product lifecycles and “product energy efficiency.”
For smartphones, sustainability was a bit of a mixed bag. Lots of companies still insist on the sort of built-in obsolescence that pours perfectly usable electronics into our landfills each year. For smartphones, nobody scored higher than Nokia and Sony for “product energy efficiency.” This is especially important for phones, since we spend so much of our lives charging them. Research in Motion reprised its position at the bottom of the list.
As a special note on ethical and sustainable smartphones, Fairphone is definitely worth a look. The company is based in the Netherlands and is not yet available to American customers, but they’re already touting their phone as a “revolution” in consumer electronics. They place a special emphasis on ethical mining and manufacturing operations and have gone to great lengths to maximize product lifecycle. Whether Fairphone’s revolution will meet success in the US remains to be seen, but so far it looks like they’re ready to shake up the status quo.
How to Shop Refurbished and Used
The electronics industry has, for better and worse, committed itself to yearly product iterations. Unfortunately, these regular, incremental improvements mean a lot of people “trade up” every year, which results in thousands upon thousands of cast-off phones and tablets that need a new and loving home.
But there’s nothing more sustainable than buying used, so if you want to make a small commitment to improving the planet, consider making your next electronics purchase a refurbished model from last year. According to Consumer Reports, only about five percent of returned electronics are actually defective — and that presents the savvy shopper with a great opportunity, since “open box” items can no longer be sold at “brand new” prices.
Perhaps the most obvious place to start is Amazon, which lets you window shop from among thousands of independent, third-party retailers and private parties. There are a lot deals to be had here. The same goes for eBay, where you can often get gently-used computers for a fraction of what they’d cost brand new — and all without paying a dime in sales tax. But if you’re an Apple fan, you’ll probably want to keep your eyes on the company’s inventory of “certified refurbished” phones, laptops and tablets. Some places, like RefurBees specialize only in refurbished products. Of course, all these places will also carry your accessories as well, and you might be able to get those as “open box” items, too! Finally, if you have one near you, Best Buy operates a number of outlet stores around the country, as well as an online storefront, where it stocks a wide variety of pre-owned, open box and refurbished products of all makes and models.
Just a word of caution: If you’re planning on buying used, make note of the retailer’s return policies. They’ll vary from place to place, so you’ll want to know your product is covered against unforeseen problems.
Sustainable Cases and Accessories
Where there are phones and tablets, there are cases and other accessories. The trouble with protective cases, of course, is the fact that phones change shape and dimension annually, which makes buying a long-lasting case rather difficult.
So when you do decide to protect your device with a case, you’ll want to make sure it’s leaving as small a footprint as possible. What you’re looking for above all is a case that eschews traditional mixed plastics and virgin metals in favor of low-impact materials. Other phone accessories go in a different direction, such as by using recycled objects (like bike tires, for example) as a base material. You might also find some clever options on Etsy.
Of course, if you want to go totally zero-impact, nothing beats a naked phone. Refer to Greenpeace’s score card to find a manufacturer that places particular importance on product durability and lifecycle — these are the devices most likely to stand up to abuse, even without the protection of a case.
Bonus: Here are some ethical and sustainable portable and wall chargers.
Disposing of Used Electronics
Finally, let’s end with a brief note about what to do with your electronics once they’ve reached the end of their lifecycle.
If you’ve gotten a new cell phone, don’t necessarily toss the old one out. For starters, it’s smart to charge it up, turn it off and leave it in your glove compartment. All cell phones must be able to make emergency calls, even if they aren’t connected to a service provider. That makes it the perfect back-up for emergency situations if your regular phone runs out of battery.
If you are decluttering and want it out of your life, no matter where you are in the country, you can rely on Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) to help you find an electronics recycler in your area. Another option is to find a drop box in one of your local “big box” retailers. Walmart and Target locations, among others, will often provide a bin at the front of their stores for customers to ethically dispose of their phones. This is a great way to make sure your electronics are recycled properly — and not just dumped in a landfill. Otherwise, most manufactures will take your old phone back. They probably won’t give you cash, but you might get some store credit. Then they’ll use the parts they can to make new phones cheaper and use fewer resources, so it’s a win-win. If you’d prefer, there are also many nonprofits that accept cell-phone donations. Women’s shelters, soup kitchens and even soldiers can make use of your old phone.
You might also consider a brand-specific trade-up program, where you’ll “give back” your phone in exchange for a new one. Some of the major brands have gotten really good at building in-house recycling programs for older models.
Unfortunately, there’s no perfectly sustainable option for electronics – in the U.S., at least. But with some small tweaks to your shopping and disposal choices, you can do a little better.