The fast-moving pace of technology is good news for gadget lovers, but not such good news for the environment. As we acquire more and more electronic products, an explosion in e-waste (electronic scrap) containing toxic chemicals that cannot be disposed of safely is a growing concern. To make environmental matters worse, devices are burning up more energy than they need to through being left on while not in use.
The blame lies with both PC users and manufacturers. Last year saw campaign group Greenpeace take on Apple, slamming its lack of environmental policies and non-existent plan to reduce its eco-impact. Apple CEO Steve Jobs rectified this in May, when he posted environmental targets online.
Other PC makers have been making a lot of noise about their energy efficiency, reducing carbon footprints and cutting non-renewable or toxic components. PC World's carbon-neutral PC has been picking up a lot of press attention, while Intel has been working on energy-efficient Santa Rosa and Centrino processors and rolling them out into various laptops.
Laptops that have flash memory rather than hard disks are another green choice. With no platter to spin, far less energy is required to write data to memory. They're a pricey option at the moment - Sony's Vaio TZ18GN costs $700 (about £350) more than its hard disk version, and has a 32GB capacity rather than 100GB - but we expect to see prices drop as more are launched.
More than a coincidence
This year, the long-promised European WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive came into full force, requiring IT firms to take responsibility when goods they've made reach retirement age. Dell and others have been heavily publicising their take-back schemes. This is something each company is legally obliged to do, yet some are more open than others to taking away all your unwanted kit rather than only items you bought from them.
There are legal requirements for consumers too. If we choose not to give back outdated equipment, we must dispose of it responsibly at a recognised recycling centre or in another approved manner.
But simply giving back outdated kit to the place from whence it came is not a complete answer for those of us keen to be a little greener in our technological dealings. Choosing wisely in the first place can be just as important.
To help you make more informed decisions, read on. We've put together a 10-step guide to greener computing and if you follow all of them, you'll already be half way to eco-friendly bliss…
1. Catch your Zs
If you don't tap your keyboard for 10 minutes, your PC will often go to sleep. Your PC's screen is probably set to go into power-saving mode after a preset period. Although they're not as power-hungry as old-style CRT displays, you can still save a great deal by having your flat-panel power off in this manner.
To adjust the setting for your PC or laptop, go to Control Panel, Power Options and select a screen power-off schedule to suit. Note that screensavers don't reduce energy consumption. You can also enable PC hibernation but, as with standby mode for other devices, this doesn't completely power down your PC. It's all too easy to assume you're keeping costs and power consumption down, even though the current is still flowing.
You'll see different power scheme options for desktop and laptop PCs. Your laptop can automatically adjust its power options depending on whether you're running it from batteries or mains power.
You'll find a range of energy-use calculators online, such as Energy Star's (eu-energystar.org). The savings you can make depend on how much you use your PC and the size of your screen, but could be £50 a year or more.
Work out your energy use using online calculators
2. Turn it all off
According to a study by Fujitsu, the UK wastes £123m powering PCs left on out of hours. That's not only a lot of wasted energy - it's a lot of money too.
An individual computer left on all the time costs about £37 a year to run. Switch it off at night and weekends and this figure can be reduced to just £10 a year. The energy saved could make almost 35,000 cups of coffee, according to the Carbon Trust.
Some argue that a PC should be left on all the time because turning it on and off causes stress to the computer's components. But if this were the case, the vast majority of PCs would suffer from such damage. They don't.
Another argument against turning off a computer is the energy required to start it up again. To be as green as can be, consider turning off your PC if it's going to be inactive for more than 16 minutes. Beyond this time, the energy needed to run it outweighs the energy required at startup.
If you leave your PC on overnight because you don't like waiting for it to start up first thing each day, set it to turn on automatically a few minutes before you arrive at the office. Restart your PC, hitting the Setup menu key before Windows loads. Tab to the Power Management Options and enable the alarm and select a suitable time for your PC to restart.
You can also schedule your computer to shut down - a good option if you like to leave it on for your backup program to run after you leave the office.
Turn on the printer only when you are ready to print. Printers consume energy even when idle. Similarly, a scanner sucks power in ready mode. Photocopiers are energy guzzlers too. Even when your PC is turned off, a phone charger plugged into your USB port will continue to draw energy.
3. Stop leaking power
It's not enough to just switch off the computer. If you really want to make sure that the machine isn't drawing power from the mains, you need to physically unplug the computer or get out of your seat and switch it off at the wall.
When you shut off your computer and the monitor goes black, your display is actually in standby mode and waiting for the PC to switch back on. Digital cameras, mobile phones and iPod power adaptors that are left plugged in all the time also suck power from the outlet, even after you've disconnected the devices you were charging. When you leave the adaptor plugged in, you're losing an average of 2W.
The simplest way of ensuring that all your computer's peripherals are completely turned off is to connect them to a power strip that you can simply switch off. Several companies have caught on to the publicity surrounding standby energy wastage and offer timer and standby switches.
4. Be an Energy Star
Energy Star stickers used to be seen plastered all over CRT screens that were unusual in having standby modes. Flat-panels use far less energy than CRTs, but buying an LCD monitor isn't the only way to conserve power. Look for the Energy Star logo when buying printers, fax machines, scanners and other products.
To find products which meet strict green standards, look for the Energy Star logo
Energy Star is an initiative that promotes energy-efficient hardware. The scheme saved $12bn (£6bn) on US utility bills in 2005. To get the stamp of approval, products must meet guidelines such as having a low-power sleep mode. At the Energy Star site (energy-star.org) it's easy to find products that meet the guidelines. It lets you search by category, brand and feature.
5. Use a flat-panel display
You may not be in the market for quite as large a flat-panel display as some of the 24in beasts in our group test (page 68), but next time you're looking to replace your PC monitor you should at least ensure that it's a TFT model. Old-style CRT displays typically use 75W of power, while 25W is more typical of a flat-panel's lighter footprint.
As well as drawing three times as much power so they can illuminate the phosphors that make up the display, CRTs contain a vast amount more lead than flat-panel displays. A typical CRT contains approximately 1.36kg of lead, while some LCDs contain only a few grammes. Philips has gone so far as to eliminate the lead content of some of its screens, such as the 19in 190C8FS.
Thankfully, CRTs are on their way out, while pressure from campaigners mean more and more products will attain certification for the responsible way they have been manufactured and their low impact on the environment.
According to the Energy Saving Trust, a DAB radio uses 10 to 20 times less energy than the same broadcast via a digital TV.
See also: Flat panel monitor reviews
6. Know your RoHS
The European Union implemented RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive) in July 2006. The directive restricts the use of lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ether in the manufacture of electronics.
Anything that's available for sale or import within the EU should now comply with RoHS. However, it's not a foolproof piece of legislation. Apple's Steve Jobs claims some companies are using loopholes in the RoHS directive to continue to use toxic chemicals in their products. These companies claim their products meet requirements "because of certain little-known exemptions granted by the EU", he says.
7. Go paper-free
Another way to do your bit for the environment, as well as save time and money, is by going digital. We waste more paper than we do anything else. The average office employee uses up to 50 sheets of A4 every day, according to Envirowise. Much of this paper is thrown away - the group estimates that UK businesses throw away five million tonnes of printing and writing paper each year.
If you can't stop printing altogether, set your device to print double-sided by default or create your own writing pad from discarded printouts. Learn to resist the urge to print out emails and other documents for filing. Instead, read them onscreen and store them on your hard drive. If you need a record, create a PDF file. If you don't already have a PDF creation package, try Backup4all novaPDF Lite 5.1, which can create PDFs of documents from within any Windows application.
Next time you find a web page you'd like to read later, don't print it. Select File, Print, click the PDF pop-up menu in the dialog box and choose Save To PDF. You do need backups of important files, but back them up to your hard drive.
8. Is your journey really necessary?
There are all sorts of ways of offsetting your carbon footprint. The most effective is not to travel unless it's really necessary. Travelling not only requires you to spend money on plane tickets and a hotel, but also includes a hidden cost. We checked out how heavy a burden a couple of intercontinental business trips plus a package holiday break within Europe could be. Our 10,000lb total (according to terrapass.com) is alarmingly high.
Broadband connections, webcams, video-conferencing and webcasting tools, along with email, ought to make many business trips unnecessary. If you have to fly but are concerned about the CO2 you'll create, consider donating to an organisation such as Native Energy or TerraPass. These companies calculate your impact and suggest a monetary donation to go towards projects such as building renewable energy sources.
9. Don't dump your WEEE
Dispose of your old hardware responsibly. Consumer electronics and computers contain toxic materials, such as lead, that can seep into the ground if dumped improperly. British Computer Society president Nigel Shadbolt explains: "PCs contain many toxic components, so if they end up in a landfill we are creating a real problem for the future.”
This is bad news, according to energy minister Malcolm Wicks. "Electrical and electronic equipment is the fastest-growing category of waste across the EU, with an estimated 17-20kg per person produced every year. The UK alone generated about one million tonnes of waste equipment last year," he says.
An older PC may no longer meet your requirements, but there are plenty of people who'd love to use it. Many charities will take an old PC and peripherals off your hands, or you can get in touch with Computer Aid, which refurbishes machines for use by schools and in the developing world. You could even sell it on eBay or give it away through Freecycle.
Failing that, recycle it. According to the WEEE directive, electrical and electronic waste has to be dealt with separately from other rubbish so that hazardous elements can be stripped out.
Electronics manufacturers and vendors cover the cost of this; your task is to get them to collect it, return it to them or take it to your council's recycling centre. If you can't transport it, arrange for the council to pick it up.
Many electrical retailers run take-back schemes - check your PC vendor for details about how it is dealing with WEEE compliance. Note that you shouldn't have to pay to return end-of-life goods. But, you can't be too careful where stored personal details are concerned.
10. The sunny side
If you're seeking clean power for energy-hungry gadgets, consider looking to the sun. Solar power is renewable and free - although sunshine can be limited here in the UK. Be aware that you need direct sunlight to get a good charge with these products. Cloudy skies and reflections on windows can cause problems.
Voltaic's £189 Solar Back Pack consists of three solar panels embedded in the outside of the bag that generate up to 4W of power. The bags have 11 adaptors for mobile phones and other devices, but are not designed to charge laptops.
If a solar-powered bag isn't for you, choose a less expensive charger that fits in your hand. The £45 Solio charger from Better Energy Systems gives about one hour of playtime or 10 minutes' talk time from one hour of sunshine, according to the maker. Whether you'll find a whole hour's worth of sunshine within the British Isles is another matter.
Other solar chargers include the Freeloader (£99 from Firebox). If you've got your PC or laptop switched on and have a couple of ports free, you could do worse than power up a pair of USBCell batteries for future use.
Laptop PCs require a little more power: unlimited-power.co.uk stocks Uni-solar Portable Solar Electric Panels that can be used for this purpose. The marketing material states that they can provide power even with bullet holes or in partial shade, which suggests that these are really designed with the army in mind, but they are worth investigating. Prices start at £451.
Wind-up chargers are also available, although their efficiency is somewhat limited. For example, the Multi Mobile Charger (£6 from iwoot.com) gives you eight minutes' talk time on your mobile if you wind it up for three minutes.
But why stop at your gadgets? If you install a renewable energy source - such as solar panels, wind turbines or biomass heaters - in your home, you may be eligible for a grant.
11. Give it away
For all our talk about the digital, paperless office, we've yet to hear of anyone achieving it. As well as saving on ink costs by printing at small point sizes and in draft or economy mode, you can minimise waste by recycling cartridges via organisations such as laserxchange.co.uk. If your office doesn't have a dedicated charity it supports, Oxfam, Childline and ActionAid and a number of smaller charities can benefit from your thoughtfulness.
Similarly, hand back your old and unloved mobile phone handsets. T-Mobile is offering £80 cashback, while Carphone Warehouse tempts you with a more modest £20. If you want to avoid the smooth sales talk, the charities we've outlined can also earn revenue from your philanthropy.