We may think we’re a culture that ditches our worn technology at the first sight of something shiny and new, but a new study reveals that we keep using our old gadgets well after they go out of style. That’s bad news for the environment—and our wallets—as these outdated devices suck up much more energy than their newer counterparts.
“There are a lot of products in U.S. households that do the same thing, but we still own 20 of them,” says Callie Babbitt, an environmental engineer at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and co-author on the new study.
To figure out how much power these devices are collectively sucking up, she and colleagues borrowed cues from industrial ecology, wherein every home was treated as an ecosystem of electronic “organisms.” Babbitt’s team tracked the environmental costs for each product across its life span—from when its minerals are mined to when we stop using the gadget. This tactic provided a readout for how home energy use has evolved since the early 1990s.
To estimate the early stages of a product’s life, the researchers turned to the Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment database. Developed by Nobel Prize–winning economist Wassily Leontief, the data estimate the environmental emissions and energy consumed while making individual products. Next, they headed to libraries to dig up old consumer reports and surveys that described ownership—“My house has a TV in the basement and one in the den”—and usage—“At night, I use my laptop and my TV at the same time.”
Babbitt’s team estimated the environmental impacts of common household electronics manufactured, bought, and used between 1992 and 2007. Devices were grouped by generation. Desktop computers, basic mobile phones, laptops, and box-set TVs defined 1992. Digital cameras and digital camcorders arrived on the scene in 1997. And MP3 players, smart phones, DVD players, and liquid-crystal display (LCD) TVs entered homes in 2002, before Blu-ray, plasma screens, tablets, and e-readers showed up in 2007.
As we accumulated more devices, however, we didn’t throw out our old ones. The average number of electronic gadgets rose from four per household in 1992 to 13 in 2007, largely because we hoarded our outdated electronics, Babbitt’s team reports online ahead of print in Environmental Science & Technology. We’re not just hoarding these old devices—we continue to use them, based on consumer surveys. According to her team’s analysis, old desktop monitors and box TVs with cathode ray tubes are the biggest legacy perpetrators, with their energy consumption and contribution to greenhouse gas emissions more than doubling during the 1992 to 2007 window. We’re also spending more time glued to our electronics, going from less than 700 hours of use per year in 1992 to more than 1400 hours in 2007.
“The paper shows a lot of the gadgets aren't replaced; they're downgraded,” says energy engineer Edgar Hertwich of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who wasn’t involved in the research. “The living room television is replaced and gets planted in the kids' room, and suddenly one day, you have a TV in every room of the house.”
Together, downgrading plus increased use equals a spike in household electronics’ energy consumption, Babbitt found. New policies and manufacturing trends have made individual gadgets more energy efficient—more standby modes or energy-saving LCD screens—but they can’t do anything about the outdated electronics we continue to plug in and turn on. As a whole home ecosystem, personal gadgets sap more energy than ever—nearly 30% of what a car burned in 2007, the study says.
So what’s the solution? The team’s data only went up to 2007, but the researchers also explored what would happen if consumers replaced legacy products with hybrid electronics that serve more than one function, such as a tablet for word processing and TV viewing. For instance, they found that more on-demand entertainment viewing on laptops and tablets versus TVs and desktop computers could cut energy consumption by 44%.
Another important aspect is improving design, Babbitt says. Next-generation “smart devices” could automatically e-mail or send text alerts when a device is left on for too long or send information on the best place to recycle electronics when gadgets get too old. Hertwich agrees: “There might be solutions on the horizon as multifunctional devices replace swaths of older devices that we have today.”