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Trending science: Is your old tech bad for the environment?

A new study has found that as we gather more devices, we don’t throw out the old ones, and this is causing a significant increase in our energy impact.

Resource efficiency means hanging onto products and using them until they die, right? This may not always be the best approach according to a new study – in fact clinging to ageing tech may actually be bad for the environment. Older devices often use more energy than new models and can be left to suck up energy unnecessarily by carrying out the same functions as other gadgets in the house. Science magazine reports on the new study which involved tracking the environmental costs for devices across their life span – from when minerals are mined to when we stop using them. Carried out by a team at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, this research offered an insight into how home energy use has evolved since the early 1990s. The research team developed a new approach for quantifying the net environmental impact of a ‘community’ of interrelated products – covering household electronics manufactured, bought, and used between 1992 and 2007. Focusing on older items such as desktop computers and new developments such as tablets and plasma screens, researchers estimated the early stages of a product’s life using the Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment database. They then consulted old consumer reports and surveys that described ownership and usage. The study found that despite efficiency improvements in individual devices from 1992 to 2007, the net impact of the entire product community increased, due primarily to increasing ownership and usage. The study Abstract notes, ‘The net energy impact for the product community is significant, nearly 30 % of the average gasoline use in a U.S. passenger vehicle in 2007. The analysis points to a large contribution by legacy products (cathode ray tube televisions and desktop computers), due to historically high consumption rates, although impacts are beginning to shift to smaller mobile devices.’ One of the problems, Science reports, is that as we gather more devices, we don’t throw out the old ones. The study shows that the average number of electronic gadgets rose from four per household in 1992 to 13 in 2007, largely because we held onto outdated electronics. The study also reveals that we’re now spending more time glued to our electronics, going from less than 700 hours of use per year in 1992 to more than 1 400 hours in 2007. Grist also quotes the study results, which appear in Environmental Science and Technology, noting that over the fifteen years between 1992 and 2007, box-set TV and desktop computer use grew by 20 % and 100 %, respectively, so not only were we accumulating devices, but we were also using them more often. However there is reason for hope in the form of prospective intervention strategies evaluated by the research team. They indicate that environmental impact can be reduced by strategies such as lifespan extension or energy efficiency, but only when applied to all products owned, or by transforming consumption trends toward fewer, highly multifunctional products. As Grist reports, ‘New multi-purpose devices like tablets and laptops that also act as TVs and MP3s could be the “invasive species” that totally wrecks current device ecosystems, [the researchers] say, and in this environment, that would be a good thing.’ For further information, please visit: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es505121p

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