Green Week: 6 ways to cut your carbon footprint

NBC Universal's Green Week is here, focusing on topics that affect the environment. All
week long we'll be bringing you special stories to help get you on Gaia's good side.

Electronics account for a bigger and bigger part of your monthly electricity bill. Everything from your big home theater rig to that tiny cellphone adds to the drain — up to 25% of an average American home's electricity usage. In fact, the team at Cooler crunched the numbers, determining the overall carbon impact of most gear, from assembly line to landfill. A 60-inch LCD TV accounts for more than 9,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime — a huge number compared to your old 19-inch tube.

As my colleague Stewart Wolpin has observed, just turning off your energy-sucking HDTV can help lessen the impact, but we all know that's not too likely to be a popular solution. We've found six other ways to take down your carbon while still letting you keep up with Dancing with the Stars. Hit the jump to check them out.


1. Don't Fear the Off Switch
It's one of those urban myths that seems to date back to when turning off our computer monitors would mean they'd wear out and never turn back on. As the helpful people at GreenCitizen, recyclers of e-waste, point out: Relax, it's a TV set, and when was the last time you wore out your TV's on/off switch? Modern electronics are made to withstand "power surges" and the other neuroses we have around our gadgets, but they're also built to be virtually disposable, or obsolete in short order, at least. That makes the mechanical power switch likely the most durable part of the thing. Even in standby mode, your computer or TV still consumes electricity, and plugging in your phone to recharge overnight is a few hours longer than needed, but you'll keep paying for the overspill of electricity running through the wires into its stuffed battery anyway. Just say no — unplug, turn off, save cash.


2. Buy a Green Plug (Coming Soon)
There are an estimated 500 million power adapters floating around the U.S. (I've personally left behind 1 million of those in hotels around the country), most of them sadly monogamous. They like your iPod, but can't figure out you BlackBerry, since each device has slightly different electrical needs. No fear, the UN of adapters is coming. In late October, California's Green Plug held a conference to bring together the brightest minds to create the mother of all stocking stuffers: the universal adapter. Nothing's final yet, but the diplomatic adapter would work like your regular one, except it would communicate with your electronic device to know what exactly it was plugging into and how many milliwatts are needed. As a bonus, when your gadget is powered up to the max, it would shut off, so no power would be wasted. I suggest an optional tether, like mittens your mom would knit, to remember to take it with you when you check out.


3. Give It Away Now
Your home electronics' overall carbon footprint also extends to its afterlife; tons of carbon emissions are used to truck, dump, and otherwise dispose your old stuff, not to mention all other chemicals (like lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium) that could get exposed to the environment. But there are a few places to get one more kick at the can out of that old desktop or cordless phone. New York City is among many big cities offering to take in old electronics, rechargeable batteries, and other products for reuse, and they'll also recycle whatever isn't usable. Quickly obsolete items like cellphones find homes in several places: The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reuses old phones as a 911 lifeline for people potentially in harm's way, and check out Charitable Recycling and Collective Good who collect old phones to raise funds.


4. Buy Some Offsets
Offsets are everywhere, and you can get them a number of ways. Websites like Cooler let you calculate the offsets you'll need to shop in carbon-free comfort. Credit-card issuers like Bank of America offer "eco-friendly" credit cards that rack up carbon credits like airline miles to offset your purchases. A different type of carbon-like credit, Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) are also available as gift cards at retailers like Whole Foods, with every dollar spent going towards a certain amount of clean energy produced. There are critics who call the whole concept of offsets a shell game, but it's a step toward a system that at least considers the impact of carbon emissions, and maybe down the road, offsets will sway manufacturers to offer more Earth-friendly products.


5. When It's Really Done, Recycle
Even if your e-junk finds another go-around with someone else, eventually even they'll get tired of it — and you'll have your own stuff that even the homeless won't want. What to do then, since disposal has its own carbon impact, and toxic waste is still a problem? With e-waste, even special collections often end with the stuff packed in containers and shipped to the Third World, where someone picks out the components they want and leaves the rest to pollute in a place with few rules. Firms like GreenCitizen provide a location where you can bring in any old electronics, including used batteries, and they'll recycle them cleanly here in the U.S. They'll even track each and every piece they have via the serial number on the back, so you have proof that the item has been recycled and not simply "sent away." They're just in the Bay Area right now, but hope to go wider soon.


6. Send It Back Home
Like the 10 cents you used to get back from refillable soda bottles, consumer and government pressure has pushed electronics manufacturers to accept their beat-up products for recycling. The Northwest Products Stewardship Council provides a list of manufacturers who promise to take items back at little or no cost. Firms like Apple, Epson, Sony, Dell and IBM are doing it, but it's no coincidence that most of these takeback program participants are big companies whose brands would suffer from any headline about environmentally unsound practices. All those generic products are out of the house for good when they're made fresh, boxed up and ready to go, and their overseas manufacturer parents have turned their bedrooms into swinger's dens before they even leave port. So resources like GreenCitizen or another reputable recycler will help guide you on how to end your relationship with that old Gameboy.