Consumer Gear Goes Green

Timing is good for consumer electronics vendors that are interested in selling green technology.

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Higher energy costs, growing public awareness of carbon consumption, new laws regulating e-waste disposal, and recent plans by the impending Obama Administration to invest in renewable energy projects to stimulate the U.S. economy are inspiring both vendors and buyers to focus on environmentally suitable products.

The Sustainability Planet pavilion at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas very nearly doubled in size this year, with a couple dozen companies displaying green packaging, alternative power sources, tools such as solar rechargers, and gadgets for assessing energy use. In addition, many major vendors devoted sections of their CES booths to publicizing their environmental efforts--everything from lowering the wattage demands of common products such as TVs and DVD players to launching recycling efforts and buy-back programs.

"Retailers are starting to push suppliers for sustainable packaging and eco-friendly products," says Craig Hershberg, director of environmental affairs for Toshiba America. "We want to see it become a purchasing decision."

Greenpeace Advises

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Toshiba won kudos--in the form of "green" ratings by Greenpeace, released during the week of CES--for producing eco-friendly laptops. The environmentalist group's periodic report recognizes manufacturers' efforts to adopt ecologically resposible practices, but the numbers show that all tech vendors have a way to go. The product rated as "greenest"--Lenovo's L2440x computer monitor--earned a score of only 6.9 on a 10-point scale. Meanwhile, Toshiba's Portege R600 received a score of 5.57 out of 10.

"Toshiba is making green efforts part of its larger vision," Hershberg says. Strict regulations in Japan prompted the company's early efforts, but Toshiba has worldwide goals for both its product designs and its business operations. For example, it has set milestones for reducing its carbon footprint, and has begun a tree-planting program in wildfire-damaged areas of Southern California.

"We consider the eco issues in any product, not just PCs or consumer electronics," Hershberg says, citing Toshiba's research and development on carbon capture and storage technology for its coal-fire plants in Japan.

Many other vendors emphasize compliance with Energy Star ratings, the U.S. government's power consumption standards. According to Hershberg, who formerly worked in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "each successive generation of TVs is more eco-friendly." A "green" section of Toshiba's CES booth displayed the company's 46-inch flat-panel 46XV5450 model, which uses an average of 220 watts of power, as well as a prototype of a potential next-generation model that runs on 164 watts.

Less Is More

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Many other major vendors presented side-by-side displays of flat-panels to demonstarate their improved power efficiency. LG Electronics showed power-efficient models in a section of its booth labeled "Life is good, when it's green" and touted its recycling program. The company also demonstrated a "green plasma" TV that draws an average of 150 watts per hour. Comparable LED screens could shrink power demand to 50 watts per hour, a representative noted. Also, LG recently shipped the first TVs that qualified for the LCD TV Association's GreenTV logo program. The company's LG50-, LG60-, and LG70-series TVs (with screens ranging from 42 to 52 inches) use ambient light sensors that automatically decrease power and lower the unit's brightness in a dark room, thereby saving power.

Panasonic offered side-by-side comparisons showing the lower power demands of its new camcorders, blu-ray DVD players, and TVs (including a plasma model that averages 150 watts per hour).

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Both LG and Panasonic also demoed clothes washers that conserve power and water. Samsung's eco-friendly WF448 washing machine won an Innovations 2009 award from CES for its design; it uses sustainable materials and reduces energy use. Samsung claims a 58 percent power reduction and 74 percent water savings in an average year of use.

"This is the first time we've done a separate section" on green products, says Mark Sharp, group manager of Panasonic's corporate environmental department. "There's a lot of interest. People are thinking of getting more-efficient products. I think there's an expectation that large companies should put efforts into this."

Panasonic is a partner with Toshiba and Sharp in an effort to offer buyback, recycling, and proper disposal of CRTs, laptops, and other electronic gear. The MRM (for "Manufacturers Recycling Management") program operates in all 50 states, inspired partly by the fact that 20 U.S. states now require proper disposal of CRTs (and insist that recycling centers accept them).

Sony operates a national Take Back Recycling program that has collected more than 12 million pounds of electronic waste since it began in 2007, representatives say. Its centers accept all Sony electronics products and batteries. The company is also trying to build environmentally advanced offices for which it hopes to obtain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification; Sony aims to reduce its facilities' emissions by 7 percent by 2010.

Green Inside

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Component developers are getting greener under the hood, too.

"Sustainability is huge," says Jeff Hsieh, product marketing manager for ATP Electronics, a memory module manufacturer whose customers include both retail consumers buand wholesale buyers like Samsung, Sony, and Palm.

ATP's EarthDrive (about $20 to $65, with capacities ranging from 2GB to 8GB) is constructed predominantly of recycled and biodegradable material; a flash Earthcard is in development, Hsieh says. The company is also emphasizing power-efficient, solid-state "system in package" units.

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The challenge posed by recycled materials is that they are often softer and less sturdy than newly produced materials, vendors say. Also, they come only in black, says J. Todd Althoff, vice president of marketing and product development for Royal, which has moved beyond its longtime typewriter business to manufacture shredders and other office machinery. Models in Royal's new line of industrial-use shredders are composed almost entirely of recycled materials, except for some touches of color, Althoff says.

Energy use assessment products are drawing attention, too. The purpose of these devices is to help businesses and consumers identify power drains and energy-hungry appliances that are expensive to leave on while not in use.

For example, the "Kill a Watt" device from P3 International plugs into any power outlet and into any appliance, where it monitors the flow of electricity, assessing usage, and identifying leaks. The Ecobutton, from a company named Ecobutton, puts your computer into a state of "green hibernation" that is supposed to be more power-efficient than normal hibernation. It also reports your usage. "People are often surprised" at how much electricity a hard-drive backup system consumes, according to a P3 representative.

Green Plug takes power reduction to the next level. Its technology--first implemented in the Innergie mCube90G, a two-port traveling charger--puts idle devices into power-saving hibernation in accordance with Green Plug's Greentalk protocol, says Mark Walsh, a senior firmware engineer.

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A CES demonstration showed Greentalk technology in action, monitoring several common electronic products and then lowering the power stream to what the printer, laptop, cordless phone, and router needed in order to operate. A new community site, I Want My Green Plug, invites Green Plug fans to urge vendors to license and implement the technology.

Conserve But Don't Interrupt

Nevertheless, several customers at CES cautioned that they don't want products, power-efficient or not, to hibernate too aggressively.

Eco-friendly products "are of greater interest if they're also a convenience. There need to be other attributes besides just the green," says David Meszaros, who manages a building-supplies firm in Vancouver, British Columbia. He recognizes, however, that vendors who tout green attributes get attention, and he hopes to see more emphasis on sustainability.

"People are naturally drawn to recycled items," agrees Mike Speyer, who provides high-end audio services in Chicago. "And there's the kid factor: Children and grandchildren are eco-conscious, and they want us to buy the green TV." He found the comparisons at CES of power use by different flat-panel TVs impressive.

"Most companies seem to be building more-power-efficient models as the next generation of products," Speyer added. As long as those new models don't cost disproportionately more, he says, he expects that people will prefer them.

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Indeed, vendors at the Sustainability Pavilion report an uptick in interest in existing products, especially in portable energy sources. Kinesis Industries showed its K2 wind and solar charger. A solar-powered universal charger for hikers and backpackers from Solio has been marketed for a year (starting at $60). And Mike Coon, COO and CFO of PowerFilm, says that his company has been offering a flexible solar panel that unfolds from a wallet-size package for the past five years. The smallest panel, with a USB port and slots for two AA batteries, retails for about $55, while the largest thin-film portable panel runs $1000 and can power a laptop. Customers include boaters, backpackers, and the military, Coon says.

CES attendee Mark Schaffer, who studied environmental science and is currently a facilities database administrator at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, says that he is encouraged by the interest but hopes that "green" isn't just this year's marketing gimmick.

"I'm waiting for sustainability to be not a special area [of a trade show], but just what it is"--part of whatever service or product being promoted--Schaffer says. "That's the next step." Still, he's heartened by consumer electronics vendors' efforts, and he expects that his environmental education will be a valuable background in the emerging market.

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