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Picture This: It’s Getting Easier to Be Green

Apr 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

How AV can make a difference in the environment.


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<i> The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that ewaste tops more than 
2 million tons of electronics each year—an unhealthy part of which is obsolete monitors, 
TVs, and lighting. </i>

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that ewaste tops more than 2 million tons of electronics each year—an unhealthy part of which is obsolete monitors, TVs, and lighting.

The typical AV professional probably doesn't think that often about protecting the planet — at least not at work. Our spheres of outward influence are a lot smaller than the world, and we are more focused on filling space with audio and video than what goes on outside the walls of a given room or building. Sure, any good AV design should include an understanding — often a very detailed understanding — of power consumption, but being green usually isn't as important as being red, green, and blue in the right proportions.

Yet increasingly, our industry is contributing to the global waste problem, and the affect is becoming more pronounced as users dispose of CRTs and older flatpanels in favor of newer models. It's a part of a growing problem known as “ewaste” that the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates tops more than 2 million tons of electronics each year — an unhealthy part of which is obsolete monitors, TVs, and lighting.

Awkwardly, less than 20 percent of that volume gets recycled. The rest usually ends up in landfills along with the variety of toxic materials that are inside them, such as lead and mercury. Indeed, older CRTs contain as much as 10 percent to 15 percent lead by weight, and over time, that lead and other harmful chemicals eventually leach into the ground and into nation's water supply.

The good news is that several display manufacturers are working to make our industry's ecological footprint a lot smaller — through recycling, smarter manufacturing, and more energy-efficient products.

At CES this past January, the otherwise competitive troika of Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba announced the Electronics Manufacturers Recycling Management Company, known more concisely as MRM. This new organization was created as a direct response to new regulations in Minnesota (as well as pending legislation in several other states) that mandate the recycling of used electronics. Joining forces offered the logistical advantage of eliminating redundancies and an economy of scale that would be far more effective than going it alone. Already, several other manufacturers — Hitachi, JVC, Mitsubishi, Philips, Pioneer, Sanyo, and Olevia — have made agreements with MRM to join the recycling effort. And Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency reported that in its first five months, MRM had collected approximately 750 tons of used products.

While the MRM announcement specifically called out the new Minnesota law, several other states — including California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — also ban the disposal of CRTs, if not additional electronic products.

On the manufacturing side, Sharp Electronics is a good example of a company being smarter about how it uses natural responses. About one-third of the power needed to operate Sharp's LCD production plant in Kameyama, Japan, is generated by a 5150kW (the world's largest) rooftop photovoltaic solar system. One hundred percent of the water used in the factory is recaptured. And the entire manufacturing process — from initial fabrication to final assembly of LCD panels — is done onsite, thereby eliminating transportation of parts between factories and dramatically reducing what would be necessary packaging for those parts. Sharp, like an increasing number of panel manufacturers, uses recycled materials to build its LCD panels.

In time, those efficiencies will likely translate directly into cost savings that might be passed on to consumers, but for now, they probably represent a more altruistic stance. On the other hand, more power-efficient products will have a more direct effect on users — particularly in larger installations.

Plasma technology is known for great colors and high contrast, but it's also got a deserved reputation as a power hog. While plasma power consumption varies depending on the onscreen content (LCD panels have a level power draw when operating), in general, they can use as much as twice the electricity as a similar-sized LCD. At CES, Panasonic offered a demonstration of new plasma technology that cuts power by as much as 50 percent, again depending on the screen material. Darker, low-current-drawing scenes don't change much, but greater efficiency producing bright colors dramatically cuts the peaks. Early models using this technology should be available this year, with the majority of Panasonic's plasma using it next year.

Of course, several LCD manufacturers — including LG, NEC, Philips, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba — have also demonstrated LCD panels with LED backlights, with many already selling products. Not only can LEDs produce a purer white backlight and therefore better onscreen colors, they also eliminate the mercury of transitional fluorescent backlights. Unfortunately, most of these panels carry an often-significant price premium — although that may change with a push from Apple.

While it's not a prominent pro AV display maker, the usually trendy, forward-looking Apple was publicly chided last year for a surprisingly poor environmental record. It was a clear stain against a company known for fresh ideas, and CEO Steve Jobs responded with a plan to eliminate arsenic and mercury from LCD monitors by turning to LED backlights. Apple has begun to sell LED-backlit notebook computers, and it hopes to offer a complete line of larger, LED-backlit Cinema displays by the end of the year. That may be ambitious, but as a large single buyer, Apple has a fair amount of influence and pressure it can exert. Increased demand would raise the economies of scale for LED-backlit displays and, in turn, lower prices across the industry.

So what does any of that mean to the AV professionals? First, it's just enlightened self interest to take a close look at the power consumption needs of your installations. Existing government Energy Star markings are obvious targets, but emerging displays and lighting products should be as well. While it's easy to focus on the capital expense of a new installation, a lasting client relationship will ultimately be affected by the overall cost of ownership of an installation, and that will include the cost of turning it on day after day.

Second, be conscious of any obsolete products for disposal. If you're in Minnesota, the law requires that you recycle them — as it does in other states. However, even if your location doesn't mandate proper disposal of electronics products, there are organizations in every state that can help do the right thing. The Environment Protection Agency's website, www.epa.gov, has information about the ewaste problem and solutions, and the Electronics Industries Alliance (EIA) website offers specific locations in all 50 states for ecycling at www.eiae.org.



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