A 'Green' Guide to Holiday Electronics Gifts (Op-Ed)
Credit: Gift image via Shutterstock

Noah Horowitz is a senior scientist and director of the Center for Energy Efficiency at the NRDC. This Op-Ed appears on the NRDC blog Switchboard. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

While shopping for gifts this holiday season, the latest electronics may be at the top of your list. As presents, electronics can be gifts that keep on giving — saving energy (and cash) with a minimal environmental footprint — if you do a little research before you make your purchases.

The typical U.S. household contains about 25 gadgets, and they consume 10 to 15 percent of an average home's annual electricity bill. So choosing the most efficient device models can substantially reduce home energy costs.

The impact can be national, too, in lowering energy bills by several billion dollars per year while preventing the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide — the main pollutant responsible for climate change — from the power plants that run these devices.

But there are three easy steps everyone can take to minimize electricity costs and the environmental impacts of gadgets:

  • Buy an energy efficient model;
  • Pick the right settings to ensure the device uses little to no power when not in use; and
  • Properly recycle old, unwanted units and make sure they don't wind up in a landfill — or in a leaking acid pit halfway around the world where the precious metals inside them are recovered.

To help you choose the right gifts for your family and friends, NRDC has put together the following Green Electronics Holiday Guide.

Televisions

Read labels & buy ENERGY STAR: Since your TV will probably last around 10 years, make sure you buy an efficient one. All TVs now carry a yellow Energy Guide label showing how much the TV costs to operate and how its energy use compares to similar-sized models. If the TV also has the ENERGY STAR® logo, it meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) energy-efficiency criteria and uses less energy than similar-sized models, saving money and protecting the environment. For the absolutely most energy-efficient models on the market, see the ENERGY STAR Most Efficient 2013 and the list at Top Ten USA.

Choose Internet-ready TV for streaming video: If you might be streaming videos and accessing applications like Netflix on your TV, purchase a TV that is "Internet-ready." Or, purchase a little black box that uses very low amounts of power, such as Apple TV or a Roku Box. Avoid streaming video through game consoles like the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, which can require up to 30 times more energy to play the same movie.

Pick the right settings: A TV's energy use can vary by as much as 20 percent depending upon its screen-brightness setting. When you are setting up your TV, make sure to select the "home" or "standard" setting, and not the "retail" or "vivid" setting that will be overly bright and consume excess power. Also disable settings such as Quick Start that can greatly increase a TV's standby power. You'll hardly notice the difference.

If you're a topical expert — researcher, business leader, author or innovator — and would like to contribute an op-ed piece, <a href=mailto:expertvoices@techmedianetwork.com>email us here</a>.
If you're a topical expert — researcher, business leader, author or innovator — and would like to contribute an op-ed piece, email us here.

Desktops, laptops, tablets, scanners and printers

Lighter and smaller is better: Unlike desktop computers and monitors that are sometimes viewed by manufacturers as having endless supplies of electricity, laptops and tablets are designed to be energy-efficient in order to make the battery last as long as possible, which is great for consumers and the environment. A tablet such as an iPad or Kindle Fire will use 35-times less energy annually than a decent desktop with 20-inch monitor, and 5- to 10-times less than a laptop. So consider buying a tablet or laptop instead of another desktop.

Smart labels: Always buy desktops, laptops, printers and scanners (and all-in-one devices) with the ENERGY STAR logo because they meet EPA's energy efficiency criteria and use less energy in "on," "sleep" and "off" modes than similar models. If you are interested in buying a desktop, laptop computer, tablet or printer that is not only energy efficient, but also contains fewer toxic materials and is designed to be easily disassembled for recycling, buy a model that meets EPEAT's criteria and is on their list of registered products.

Smart settings: For desktops and laptops, take full advantage of power-management settings to also reduce energy use, including avoiding screen savers that actually use more energy by making the computer work harder. Instead, set the screen to switch off after 15 minutes or less of inactivity, and the computer to go to sleep after 30 minutes or less of inactivity. For more on settings, see this guide.

Other inexpensive "green gadgets" that make good holiday gifts

Kill-a-Watt meter: A really nifty device is the Kill-a-Watt meter, which enables you to measure how much energy each device in your home uses, both when on and when "turned off." The meter only costs about $20 and will provide many "ah ha!" moments. For example, in my home, our game console uses 70 watts continuously when our kid forgets to turn it off, which can add up to $100 a year in wasted electricity. And, that "turned off" DVR set top box from your cable or satellite company still draws around 20 watts — all night long.

Rechargeable batteries: Even if you're not planning big-ticket electronics purchases this holiday season, a battery charger and a set of rechargeable AA batteries can help save lots of money, and keep you from contributing to the waste of billions of single-use batteries that have ended up in landfills.

Smart power strips: As many devices continue to draw some level of power when inactive, or even when turned off, the foolproof solution is to plug all the devices in the room into a smart power strip. These next generation power strips can sense when a TV or computer is turned off and will automatically power down all the peripheral devices that are plugged in. For example, consider one for your TV's ecosystem to ensure not only your TV is really off, but also the DVD player, game console and surround-sound audio system that are connected to it. Many of the models include a few "hot sockets" that allow devices like cell-phone chargers to continue to function while the other devices are turned off. Also, make sure to plug your DVR into one of the strip's hot sockets as it will need to remain on to record your shows.

LED light bulbs:Treat a friend or relative to one of the new hi-tech light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs. A good LED light bulb now costs as little as $10 at stores like Home Depot and Wal-Mart, and due to its efficiency and long life, will save over $100 over its lifetime. To learn more about the best light bulbs to buy, see NRDC's guide.

A guide to picking the "greenest" electronics as holiday gifts.
A guide to picking the "greenest" electronics as holiday gifts.
Credit: NRDC.

What do you do with the old stuff?

EPA says about 2 million tons of electronic gadgets are discarded each year, but fewer than 20 percent are recycled. Fortunately, there are great and easy options to do better.

Reuse/Resell: It takes a lot of energy to make a new device so it's often better to keep old, functioning consumer electronics in use, especially when it comes to smart phones, tablets and laptops. Give them to family or friends, or take advantage of small electronics buyback programs from such retailers as Radio Shack, Walmart.com and a slew of websites.

Recycle: If an old device no longer works, or is an energy hog like the older plasma TVs, get it out of circulation. Take it to a certified e-Steward recycler to make sure your e-waste is properly recycled. Best Buy, for example, will accept your waste electronics, including TVs, at all its stores — free, and regardless of where items were purchased — and only uses e-Steward recyclers. Kudos to them for this continuing leadership.Staples has a similar program, but doesn't accept TVs. Beware many of the E-waste drop-off fundraisers at your local school, as the equipment is not always taken to a reputable recycling facility, so be sure to ask.

Horowitz's most recent Op-Ed was "This Halloween, Slay Some Energy Vampires." The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.