Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Should You Shut Down Your Computer or Put It to Sleep?

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Phew! You've made it through another day at the office. You're just about to don your coat and head out into the evening—but your computer's still on. Should you turn it off, or leave it in "sleep" mode? Some say it's better to shut down, since that way it won't be using any power while you're not around. But others say that the process of shutting down and starting up again uses more power than letting your machine sleep. Who's right?

First things first: Turning your computer off, then on again does not use more power than leaving it on in "sleep" mode. "That's a myth," says Bruce Nordman, an energy efficiency researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Another myth: Turning your computer on and off is bad for the machine. "In order to do any real damage, you'd have to turn it on and off far more frequently than anyone would ever want to," says Nordman. That said, trying to remember to shut down your machine every night isn't necessarily the most effective energy-savings strategy. Here's why.

Fifteen years ago, when computer manufacturers first experimented with sleep mode (it used to be called "standby"), the energy savings weren't very dramatic. Today things are different: According to energy efficiency expert Michael Bluejay, while in use, the average laptop requires 15-60 watts, while desktops use 65-250 watts, plus an additional 15-70 for the monitor. In sleep mode, however, most laptops use a measly two watts, and desktops with monitors use 5-10 watts, says Nordman. ("Hibernate" modes on some computers use even less energy—for a good rundown on the difference between various power management modes, check out Michael Bluejay's guide.) Because sleep settings use so little energy, Nordman believes that it isn't really worth making a big production out of remembering to shut down your computer every day: "Much more important to make sure that your computer is set to go into power-saving mode after a certain period of idle time."

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Does Your Birth Control Really Turn Male Fish Female?

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 1:59 PM EDT

A few months back, I blogged about a pro-life group's weird environmental campaign. The American Life League basically said women should feel guilty about taking birth control because it ends up in rivers and "is making male fish, frogs and river otters less masculine."

Turns out that campaign is not only annoying, it's also based on faulty information. A new study from UC-San Francisco found that only a very small fraction of estrogen in waterways comes from oral contraceptives. Other sources include landfills, non-contraceptive pharmaceuticals, soymilk and biodiesel factories, but quite a bit comes from big farms. From Chemical & Engineering News:

The UC San Francisco researchers also found that runoff from large animal farms could contribute to waterway contamination, in part because – unlike household waste – livestock effluents are untreated. A study conducted in the United Kingdom estimated that even if only 1% of the estrogens produced by farm animals reached waterways, they would make up 15% of the estrogens in the water. The data suggest that animal farm runoff should be treated before being released into the environment, Wise says.

And considering the heavy antibiotic use on most factory farms, I'm guessing estrogen isn't the only thing going from farms into waterways.

Which Electronics Companies Recycle Best?

| Tue Oct. 19, 2010 4:44 PM EDT

Yesterday I reported on the environmental impact of new vs. refurbished computers. Refurbished computers won handily as the best choice for the planet (and your wallet). But what about when your electronic device is finally completely kaput? Best case scenario is that the company that you bought it from runs an excellent recycling program. But that's not always the case.

Today, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition issued a Green Electronics Recycling Report Card, evaluating companies on their programs for recycling their own products. The findings, according to a press release:

The highest marks go to Dell, Samsung, and Asus, but there were still some companies with failing grades, including Brother, Kodak, Lexmark, Philips, Funai, Epson, and RCA (now owned by Technicolor).  Samsung also got a “dishonorable mention” because of concerns about their occupational health record at manufacturing plants in Korea where many young workers have been diagnosed with blood cancers and several have already died.

One overall trend: Companies that manufacture printers get woefully low grades. That's because most printer makers only take their products back through mail-in programs, but according to the ETC, most people don't actually bother to mail back a product as bulky as a printer. So what's the solution? Store-based drop-off stations? Or, like the death of the compostable SunChips bag, does this say more about consumers than it does about companies?

Check out the report card here, and ETC's grading criteria here (pdf).

 

What's Greener: A Refurbed Laptop or a New One?

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

My last laptop lived till the ripe old age of six, but toward the end of its life, it went downhill fast. It took its sweet time to complete even the simplest of tasks. I developed a nervous tic of saving my blog posts every two or three minutes, since I never knew when my browser would freeze or suddenly quit. And since its battery was only good for about five minutes, my laptop was basically a desktop with a tiny screen. I considered replacing it with a refurbished model, but in the end I was seduced by a brand new laptop that I figured could probably do more tricks than a used one. Besides, I had heard that newer models were actually better for the environment, since they used energy more efficiently than older models.

I'm not the only one who prefers shinily new over gently used. According to a survey by Resource Recycling, a company that publishes industry news for recycling businesses, consumer sales of refurbished electronics have dropped in recent years, since retailers are "flooding the consumer electronics market with new devices that are comparable in price to used goods, but are packed with more features." So are newer computers really a better deal than refurbished models in the long run? And which kind is better for the planet?

Environmentally speaking, refurbished computers are the clear winners. "An astonishing amount of resources go into making these products," says Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. According to a 2003 UN study (pdf), the manufacture of one desktop computer requires 48 pounds of chemicals, 1.7 tons of water, and 529 pounds of fossil fuels—about 10 times the weight of the computer itself. (By comparison, new refrigerators and cars require roughly their own weight in fossil fuels.) "The more we can reuse old products, the fewer new resources need to be extracted," says Kyle. And the less we add to the world's pile of e-waste, which is giant and growing bigger every day.

What's more, even though newer computers use energy more efficiently than older models, it's not the energy use by the consumer that's the main problem. A 2004 UN study (pdf) found that about four-fifths of the total energy consumed over a desktop computer's lifetime is used during production of the computer—and only one-fifth was consumed during its use.

Buying a refurbished computer also makes financial sense. Though prices of professionally refurbished computers vary widely depending on hardware age, software packages, and warranties, you can often find deals for as little as half the price of a brand new machine, and in many cases refurbished models will last just as long as new ones, says Willie Cade, the CEO of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, a computer refurbishing company. (For specifics on various brands and price comparisons, check out this excellent Gizmodo post on the topic.) Cade and his team recently outfitted desktop PCs from 2001 with the latest software, then had college students use both the refurbished computers and brand new ones in a blind test (the monitors were identical). Thirty-six percent of the students couldn't tell the difference between the old computers and the new.

If you do choose a new computer, you can extend its life by cleaning up its software when it starts to get slow. People keep their new computers for an average of 2.5 years, but the majority of them can last a whole lot longer if you upgrade the software. "People often think computers slow down after a year or two," says Cade. "But that's usually a problem with the software—either there's too much of it or it's not working efficiently. If you refresh or clean up the software, it will usually get quicker." According to Cade, as a general rule of thumb, if you refresh your computer's software after its second birthday (which will usually run you a few hundred bucks), you can extend its life for three years if it's a laptop, and five or six if it's a desktop.

What you should look for if you're buying a refurbished computer: Make sure the software is legally licensed and genuine—that way you'll be able to get the necessary updates. Ideally, your refurbished laptop should come with a three-year warranty and a tech help phone number. "Someone that says 30 days—run away," says Cade. Make sure your refurbisher is registered and/or authorized: In the Microsoft world, that means being a member of the Microsoft Refurbisher Program

If you're getting rid of your old computer, make sure you do it responsibly. Chances are it can be fixed and sold or donated to someone else: The refurbishing company Gazelle.com pays cash for used computers and gadgets. PC Rebuilders and Recyclers will sell your spiffed-up computer to a needy school or organization for about a third of the cost of new. Most manufacturers will take back your used electronics; the recycling information group Earth911 has a good guide to those programs, plus a list of organizations that accept donations of old computers, here. The EPA has more resources here.

Special thanks to the folks at the Story of Stuff Project, who helped me research this post. Can't wait for the new Story of Electronics, out November 9!

Got a burning eco-quandary? Submit it to econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by signing up for our weekly Econundrums newsletter here.

Live Chat: Ryan Lizza Talks Climate

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 4:34 PM EDT

New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, who took a hard look at Senate's failure to pass a climate bill in a mammoth recent piece, is swinging by Grist at 11 a.m. PST/2 p.m. EST on Thursday to answer readers' questions in a live chat with Grist's David Roberts. We are streaming the chat here at Mother Jones, too. Here's the scoop from Roberts:

This month, The New Yorker ran an extraordinary 10,000-word piece by reporter Ryan Lizza detailing the climate bill's slow and inglorious failure in the U.S. Senate. It was a feat of inside reporting, meaty enough to support dozens of follow-on posts dissecting and illuminating it. I myself wrote no less than five posts spinning off Lizza's story:

I could have kept going, too, if my colleagues hadn't started to mock me.

I'm very pleased to report that Lizza will be stopping by for a chat with Grist readers and me on Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern, 11 a.m. Pacific. I'll be moderating and selecting questions.

Questions for Lizza? Leave 'em in the comments section on Roberts' post here. You can watch the chat here:

 

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