How to decide whether to repair or replace electronics

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There's nothing biodegradable about a cell phone, or a computer, or any other electronic appliance. And yet, we buy new ones --and throw out the old ones--all the time. Patty Kim, from National Geographic's The Green Guide has tips on how to decide whether to repair or replace electronics in your home.

How to decide whether to repair or replace electronics Sometimes we just "have to have" the latest technology, even if our old model works just fine. And when a piece of electronic gear breaks, the immediate temptation is to trash it and buy a newer, faster, more feature-rich model. But is replacing electronics the most environmentally responsible choice? Here's what you need to know to make the best decisions:

  • With most computers, the best choice for the environment is to repair and upgrade for as long as you can. Adding memory or ram can quickly and easily upgrade many computers. A gigabyte of memory costs about $100 and you can usually install it yourself. (Note: There are times when it’s better to replace than repair a computer. For example, if you still have a large cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitor, replace it with a flat-panel liquid crystal display: A 15-inch LCD screen uses a fraction of the electricity a CRT needs.)
  • If you decide to replace electronics, such as a new name-brand computer or peripheral, choose a manufacturer with a strong take-back program that will guarantee your computer won't end up in a landfill. For example, Dell takes back all branded products for free; other companies accept new models or charge a small fee.
  • Laptop or a desktop? Environmentally, it’s a toss-up. The Silicon Valley Toxics coalition says that even though laptops are smaller, they often have just as many chemicals to dispose of.
  • When it comes to other electronics, such as printers, televisions, digital cameras, and cell phones, it’s probably not cost effective -- or even possible in some cases -- to repair them. But, before getting rid of them, always consult the instruction manual—maybe you can fix them yourself. Also, try contacting the manufacturer as some manufacturers will provide repairs for a small fee. And most manufacturers and retailers will encourage you to send old equipment back to them, or bring them into the stores.
  • Whether you decide to replace or repair, keep discarded electronics out of landfills. Be sure you recycle them.
Transcript I’m Patty Kim from the Green Guide for Howdini. Lets talk about trash. Not the stuff you bag up and leave by the curb every week, but the millions of tons of computers, monitors, cellphones and other electronic items that are thrown away every year. Landfills are overflowing with what’s called "e-waste"-- In fact, e-waste is the fastest growing portion of the U.S. waste stream. In 2005, electronics accounted for 2.63 million tons of waste—only 12.5 percent of which was recycled, Take a look at the computer you’re watching me on right now. How long will you keep it, and what will you do with it when it breaks or begins to lag behind newer models with better features? I’m going to show you how to make the environmentally responsible choice with your computer-- and all your other electronics. First some facts you should know. According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the amount of energy used to manufacture new computers is four times what it takes to extend the life of an older machine a few years. So in most cases, the best choice for the environment is to repair and upgrade for as long as you can. A computer can be upgraded by adding memory or ram. A gigabyte of memory will. It costs about $100 and you can install it yourself. But what to do when the computer is actually broken? That’s not such an easy decision. Name brand computers often have to be shipped back to the manufacturer, sometimes even overseas, to be fixed, not necessarily the greenest choice. On the other hand, "White box" computers, that is, generic models without name brand parts, can easily be upgraded at local computer stores. Check your warranty though. They come without software, and finding technical support may be difficult. White box models are available online or at large computer chains. If you buy a name-brand computer or peripheral, choose one with a strong take-back program that will guarantee your computer won't end up in a landfill. Dell takes back all branded products for free; other companies accept new models or charge a small fee. Should you buy a laptop or a desktop? Environmentally, it’s a toss-up. The Silicon Valley Toxics coalition says that even though laptops are smaller, they often have just as many chemicals to dispose of. There are times when it’s better to replace than repair a computer. For example, if you still have a large cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitor, replace it with a flat-panel liquid crystal display: A 15-inch LCD screen uses a fraction of the electricity a CRT needs. When it comes to other electronics, such as printers, televisions, digital cameras, and cell phones, it’s probably not cost effective -- or even possible in some cases -- to repair them. But, before getting rid of them, always consult the instruction manual—maybe you can fix it yourself. Also, consider contacting the manufacturer. Some manufacturers will provide repairs for a small fee. Whatever you do, keep discarded electronics out of landfills. Be sure you recycle them. Most manufacturers and retailers will encourage you to send old equipment back to them, or bring them into the stores. I’m Patty Kim from the Green Guide for Howdini.
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  • Patty Kim

    Patty Kim Correspondent, National Geographic's The Green Guide Patty Kim is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist. She is served as a host and anchor for National Geographic as well as reporting for the PBS television program “Nova Science Now.” more about this expert »

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