Consumer Gear Goes Green

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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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