Time to Cut Back on Passive Power & Toxic E-Waste

We've made some progress since the first Earth Day in 1970. Many of our rivers are cleaner and -- though it's still a problem -- air pollution in some cities isn't nearly as bad as it was back then. But our increased reliance on technology has also created some new problems.

For one thing, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), much of our recycled e-waste is exported to developing countries, where adults and children involved in dismantling the equipment are exposed to toxic chemicals that affect them and the environment around them. SVTC.org has a compelling 14-minute video, "Citizens at Risk," that illuminates the issue.
In many jurisdictions, consumers are required by law to recycle used electronic products, but you need to make sure you do it responsibly. Check with your local waste management services to see how they handle recycled electronics.

Passive power

Passive power is energy consumed when the device isn't being used. Most of those power bricks you have plugged into the wall, for example, are sucking power even if they're not connected to whatever device they're meant to power or charge. The passive energy use for each device may be small but, collectively, it adds up to a big number.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Appliances & Electronics Web page assigns a startling amount of home energy consumption to passive power. "In the average home, 75 percent of the electricity used to power home electronics and appliances is consumed while the products are turned off," it says.

Of course, it's not just those power bricks that are the culprit but also the standby or low-power mode, or "lopomo," that many devices use to make it easier or faster to turn them on via a switch or remote control. Last year, California's Energy Commission took the lead to reduce power consumption for TVs by requiring lower power consumption while on and off, including a provision that they draw no more than 1 watt in standby mode. The rules start to phase in next year.

Passive power consumption is especially significant from devices that have a spinning disc. TiVo recently came out with its TiVo Premier DVR, which it says is Energy Star compliant. I don't have one to test, but the company's Web site says it uses 23 watts in standby mode and 25-26 watts while recording. That's still a lot of power being used 24/7.

PCs are also big power hogs. Because most PCs take a long time to boot, it makes sense to leave them running when not in use. But make sure you've turned on all the energy-saving features, including having the computer automatically go into sleep mode after, say, a half-hour of inactivity.

From my experience, Mac OS X is pretty good at managing sleep mode and Windows 7 does a better job of putting PCs to sleep and waking them up than earlier Windows operating systems. But your success will depend on what software you're running and what peripherals you have attached to your PC. Also, consider turning off Bluetooth or Wi-Fi when you're not using them.

As I look back 40 years to Earth Day 1970, I'm happy to say we've made a lot of progress. For the sake of our earth and our planet, let's hope that we make a lot more progress between now and Earth Day 2050.