Computer geeks often find themselves at odds with the eco-friendly lifestyle. All computers need power to function and the components used to build them require significant industry and many raw resources. There is no such thing as an all-natural PC, and never will be.
That doesn’t mean computer users have to give Mother Nature the middle finger, however, as there are ways to minimize your impact. A few simple steps can do your part for the planet – and save you money in the process.
Buy Used Hardware
Environmentalists often talk about a product’s “cradle to the grave” cost, the total of the resources needed to build, maintain, and retire something. Computers have a high cradle cost because they require specialized equipment and some rare resources to produce.
The best way to mitigate this is to buy a used PC. Preferably, it should be a computer that is used but not more than a few years old. This means you’ll have a computer that is power efficient, yet won’t be contributing to production of new devices.
You’ll also be buying at a nice spot in the depreciation curve. Apple devices excluded, computers are like cars. They lose a lot of value the moment they leave the store and drop like a stone for several years.
A used computer that’s only a few years old is nothing to fear, but you should prepare for your purchase by reading our guide on buying used electronics.
If You Must Have New, Go Green
I think buying used is the most eco-friendly way to acquire a computer, but it’s not an option for everyone. Even I usually build rather than buy, be it new or used, so I can obtain hardware that’s great for the newest games.
Building is not a bad second option, however. You take a step out of the production process, which is a bit more eco-friendly, and you can choose components that are efficient. The power supply is a great example. Some units are drastically more efficient than others and draw less power from a wall socket. They’re more expensive to buy, but they run cooler and save money over time. They are also usually built from high-quality components, so the power supply might last a decade rather than a few years.
Buyers who lack the knowledge to build their own PC aren’t out of luck, either. There are some small, eco-friendly desktops that consume far less power than the bulky towers of old. Sure, they’re not the quickest systems around, but they’ll handle web browsing and basic productivity just fine. And they’re cheap, as most are $500 or less.
Upgrade & Reuse Instead Of Replace
Some geeks might argue, however, that small desktops and laptops are harder on the environment than large ones. Why? Because upgrading isn’t possible. When the system becomes obsolete the entire PC must be tossed. Tower owners can instead replace only what’s obsolete and keep what’s not. The case, power supply, hard drive, and optical drive can last for a decade if treated well.
The value of upgrading components is obvious, and any PC geek who has built their own computer no doubt does this already. Upgrades are both a good value and eco-friendly. But what about the hardware that can’t be replaced and the hardware you remove during an upgrade?
These old components can often be preserved or reused in various ways. Let’s say you have an old monitor, for example. You could sell it online, donate it to a thrift shop, use it as a small TV in a second room, or turn it into an LCD photo frame. All of these choices are more eco-friendly and provide you with more value than simply tossing it in the trash.
Save Power, Print Less
All computers, no matter how they’re purchased, need power to function. A typical mid-range desktop computer will need about 100 watts of power when the CPU is at maximum load and 40 to 50 watts at idle (monitor included). That’s not a lot compared to an air conditioner, but it adds up over time.
Learning your computer’s power options is the best way to decrease consumption. Windows, OS X and most versions of Linux can automatically turn off your display or put your computer to sleep after a set period of time. There’s really no downside to using this feature. Your computer will still draw some power while in sleep, but only a few watts at most.
If you have a printer, consider ways to decrease the paper you use and save on ink. You can print on both sides of paper (a feature called duplex printing), use recycled paper and change your print settings to black-and-white rather than color when not printing photos. If you don’t print often, consider ditching your home printer and using a local print shop instead. You’ll cut out the expense of the printer, its paper and the standby power most home printers constantly consume.
You can also save power by choosing a modestly sized monitor (nothing larger than 24 inches). Very large monitors are a nice luxury, but they also chug watts like a sports fan chugs beer. A 30-inch display can draw up to five times more power than a 24-inch screen.
Admittedly, none of these tips are going to drastically cut your power bill. You may save a few dollars at most. Every watt counts to the environment, however, and adjusting your PC’s settings will only take a few minutes.
Retire Old Hardware By Recycling Or Donating
Computers can do a lot of damage to the environment when they’re thrown away. Their components do not degrade quickly and some parts, like capacitors, can leak toxic fluids. The way you handle a computer or component that must be tossed is important.
Most major cities across the globe have set up recycling centers for electronics. Some of these are run by the government, others by for-profit enterprises that try to turn the components into useful materials. In any case, a Google search for computer recycling centers will turn up the options near you.
Donation is another option. A computer that you consider obsolete may be helpful to a person who can’t afford their own PC. Most thrift shops and donation centers accept computers and a few will accept components. However, you may want to see if the donation center says anything about recycling unused PCs. Donating to a place that never recycles defeats the point.
Eco-friendly computing is not an oxymoron. Many elements of PCs take their environmental toll, but you can reduce your footprint with the proper knowledge and actions. A computer that is purchased used, upgraded over time, and finally donated or recycled has far less negative impact than one purchased brand new, used for a few years, and then thrown in the garbage.
Do you care about eco-friendly computing? Leave a comment to let us know what you do to reduce your impact on the environment.
Image Credits: Geek Thrift Store by Jeff Kubina via Flickr, Recycled Computers by Drregor via Flickr, Upgraded Inspiron by Mew905 via Wikimedia, Hardwood trees in forest by Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service