Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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Tuesday
May212013

An Assessment of Television’s Environmental Impact: Common Sense Considerations to Reduce Energy Consumption

My life recently shifted—away from friends and family, career, a splendid city, and the life I had built for nearly a decade to the unknown of a new country, city, and job.  With this transition came a new perspective and radical changes that are mostly welcome, sometimes challenging, and always unexpected.  These changes will soon be reflected in my postings.  However, before my departure I finished research on a topic I long avoided due to my lifelong addiction—television.

While my new life means that a television is no longer my low maintenance companion, offering entertainment and the constant hum of background noise, it does not mean that its presence is no longer felt.  Many homes in Thailand have at least one television.  In the country I left, the numbers are staggering.  The U.S. is home to almost as many televisions as people—approximately 275 million televisions live in our homes and offices.  

We are a culture that loves its TV.  I am no exception.  But what are the costs of our devotion to small screen entertainment?  What are the ecological impacts of our televisions and viewing habits?

The Creation, Life, and Disposal of Televisions

There are three stages in the "life" of a TV that create environmental impacts. These are (1) manufacturing and transport; (2) use; and (3) disposal

(1) Manufacturing and transport

Making a television is an energy intensive industrial process. This process requires fossil fuels to provide the considerable amounts of energy necessary to manufacture the highly refined glass and semiconductor components that make up modern television sets.  These components are comprised of non-renewable materials that contribute to the increasing problem of electronic waste

Once a television is manufactured, it must then be packaged and transported to its point of sale.  Some large retailers have made efforts to reduce their ecological footprint vis-a-vie transport (Sony, for example, now has a policy of shipping its goods by rail or sea rather than truck or air to reduce its energy costs).  Others have incorporated transport concerns into the CSR or corporate social responsibility programs.  However, while some CSR programs are effective, others should be viewed with skepticism and employ more rhetoric than actual corporate accountability. 

(2) Use

The environmental impact of your television will vary based on the type of television you own and how often you watch it.  Old-fashioned televisions use cathode ray tubes (CRT), which require more electricity than televisions based on newer technologies.  Yet new technology does not necessarily mean smaller carbon footprint.  Plasma televisions ionize gas to create the colors needed for its pixel cells, and this process requires significant amounts of energy to brighten the screen. 

Currently, the best choice for energy consumption is a flat-panel liquid crystal display, or LCD.  LCDs use fluorescent backlighting, which draws less energy than traditional technologies.  LCD technology has also advanced so that the backlighting is only on for certain areas of the screen or as needed, an improvement on earlier models that required backlighting to be constantly on full. 

An emerging technology that offers further energy reductions are sets using organic light emitting diodes or OLEDs.  OLEDs use an array of small LED lights in a very thin screen, promising to double energy efficiency from the best available current technologies. 

Size also matters.  Larger screens and longer duration of use increase energy use.  Standby or vampire power further increases energy drawn from TVs (see previous livingneutral post on how to reduce standby power usage).  Even when a television is off, it is not completely shutdown and still requires power to remain on standby.  There are ways to reduce our standby power consumption, or eliminate it entirely, which are discussed in a previous entry. 

Manufacturers are also mindful of this issue, working to improve efficiency to stay in line with energy star ratings in countries like the US and Japan.  Choosing a certified energy efficiency model will ensure that these kinds of considerations went into the design of your television.  If possible, try to find a manufacturer that complies with ROHS, or the European Reduction of Hazardous Substances directive. The ROHS requires the elimination of hazardous substances like lead and mercury in electronics imported into EU member states.  Because the US does not have similar restrictions, many available electronics still contain lead-based solder, mercury, cadmium, and brominated fire retardants.  Manufacturing with these chemicals creates toxic waste and emissions and pollutes disposal sites.

Broadcast power further contributes to TV’s broader environmental impact.  Transmission of broadcasts signals requires large amounts of power.  Alternatively, programs downloaded via the internet require much less energy on the front end to reach your screen.

(3) Disposal

Even at the end of its life cycle, a television continues to impact the environment.  According to the EPA, approximately 20 million televisions are disposed of in the US annually, with more than 80 percent going to landfills.  Toxic chemicals from these TVs can leach into soil and groundwater, creating environmental and health hazards.  Recycling offers a promising alternative.  However, it is important to understand where the television goes when recycled.  Often, they are resold in developing countries.  CRT tubes can also be melted down to make products like car batteries.  This often occurs in countries where environmental regulations are non-existent or go unenforced. 

In summary—if you are in the market for a television, consider an energy efficient model that complies with international standards.  Letting go of your need for a massive screen will also lower your energy bill and ecological impact.  Finally, try to use a television for its full life cycle, and do not simply discard it into a landfill once its reached expiration date. 

With recent news that we’ve passed the 400 parts per million carbon dioxide milestone, it is important that we begin to make changes in our lives.  These might be radical—giving up the use of a television entirely as I have—or small—using energy efficient models for the duration of their lifespan.  We owe our future selves and generations the foresight to make better decisions today.  Indeed, our choices should be obligations—to reduce our ecological impacts and encourage businesses through our behavior.

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Reader Comments (1)

I recently got rid of my TV and I cannot tell you how incredibly liberating it was!

June 7, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersolar power

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