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Okay, you recycle your bottles and cardboard, fill up with unleaded petrol and use roll-on deodorants, but how green are you really? How much is your home entertainment system contributing to global warming and the hole in the ozone layer?



At first glance home entertainment would appear to be a fairly uncontentious subject, at least as far as green issues are concerned, but you would be wrong, very wrong. Consumer electronics in all its various forms is having significant impact on planetary resources and one way or another contributes to virtually all of our environmental problems, from the greenhouse effect to rain-forest deforestation, but it’s not all bad news....


The most obvious problem is power consumption;  at a conservative estimate the nation’s TVs consume over 8,000 megawatts of electricity every day, equivalent to the output from three or four of the country’s largest power stations, and that doesn’t include the power used by TV transmitters, studios and the huge broadcasting infrastructure. That power comes from a network of over 70 generating stations, 13 of them nuclear, there’s a handful of wind farms and hydroelectric plants, the rest burn irreplaceable fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil and gas. All forms of power generation, even the ones using renewables (water and wind) have an impact on the local environment,  though the safe disposal of nuclear waste and the release of CO2 (greenhouse gas) and pollutants (acid rain etc.) are global problems.  


The good news is that most consumer electronic appliances (TVs VCRs and hi-fi’s etc.) are becoming more efficient and power consumption is falling. Back in 1960 a typical 17-inch black and white television used around 180 watts. more than three times as much as some 20-inch colour sets today. The savings are largely due to the change from valves to semiconductor technology, less wasteful power supplies -- they don’t get so hot --  and our old friend the microchip, with it’s frugal appetite for power. At least that’s the general trend, in practice we’re buying more mains-powered appliances and gadgets so overall power consumption per household is little changed.


The energy deficit begins long before the equipment is ever switched on however, and  enormous amounts of power are used during the manufacturing stages, from the extraction of the raw materials, right up to final assembly. Then there’s the materials themselves, and some more hopeful signs for the future. Until about ten years ago hard-woods from non-sustainable sources were widely used in the manufacture of TV, hi-fi and speaker cabinets. These days they’re only used on a handful of top-end products, though the Americans still have an unhealthy liking for wooden-clad products. Fortunately they seem reasonably satisfied with man-made substitutes, whilst we in Europe have given up the pretence that TVs have to look like pieces of furniture and made the transition to plastics and fibreboard composites. It’s a moot point whether they’re any greener though, plastics are mostly derived from oil and fibreboard manufacture uses up a lot of energy.


The plastic content in most TVs, VCRs and hi-fi systems is very high, typically 70%, which raises the question of safe disposal once the product’s life cycle has come to an end. Up until about five years ago most plastics were routinely dumped in landfill or burnt. Plastics decompose only very slowly and may release dangerous chemicals in the process. The alternative is even worse, when plastics are burnt they release a thoroughly evil cocktail of highly toxic chemicals, including, in some circumstances dioxins, a constituent of the infamous Agent Orange defoliant, used during the Vietnam war. Hitachi have since eliminated all dioxin precursor chemicals from their video products. The London Fire Brigade Fire Safety Branch confirmed the dangers of setting fire to AV equipment, and they have recently identified a new hazard. It’s a dense and highly toxic smoke given off by video cassettes. Previously a couple of smouldering tapes wasn’t a big problem for them, but now people are amassing large collections of cassettes, amounting to several kilograms of highly flammable plastic.


Chloroflurocarbons or CFCs -- the prime suspect in the ozone layer hole  -- were widely used in various consumer electronic manufacturing processes, from cleaning printed circuit boards, to expanding polystyrene. These have now been largely eliminated, or are only used in closed-loop systems where they can no longer escape into the atmosphere. Several companies, notably Panasonic and Philips have instigated wide-ranging recycling plans which at the very least ensures that all of their plastic components are coded so they can be effectively sorted when they’re dismantled. Philips have gone one stage further and reclaim old circuit boards, which in any case is worth doing as they contain a percentage of recyclable plastics, as well as valuable metals including gold, lead and copper.


Packaging is another area where there’s some cause for optimism and Grundig in Germany are showing the way forward. They’ve changed from expanded foam packaging to a kind of papier mache, egg-carton material made from recycled paper. German environmental legislation, generally reckoned to be amongst the toughest in the world, covers all consumer products from the cradle to the grave, and puts the onus on the manufacturer to ensure their products, and packaging are recycled and recylable. Packaging is one area where most manufacturers are trying quite hard -- it’s cheap, reasonably easy to do and visible -- most cardboard transit cartons are now made from recycled materials and the polystyrene content is being reduced, or replaced altogether with alternative materials such as compressed paper and plastic pulp.


There’s more good news, televisions are less likely to make you sterile, give you cancer or set fire to your home. Older sets, and in particular those which used valves, emitted significant amounts of x-ray radiation, and caught fire with alarming regularity. TVs don’t burn as easily now but they still generate a wide range of high and low frequency emissions, some of which have been linked to various medial conditions, from birth defects to headaches and epilepsy, but the jury is still out on dosages and linkages have still to be conclusively proven. The best advice is not to sit too close to the screen, your old mum was right after all...


So is it possible to be green and have a home entertainment system? The two appear to be mutually incompatible but the overall picture isn’t as bleak as it seems. The positive side of consumer electronics cannot be ignored. Apart from the pleasure it brings to countless millions of people it’s a vital expression of human creativity and ingenuity, it provides employment, often in poorer communities  but most importantly radio, television and music bring people together and enables us to share the kind of information that will hopefully prevent us from destroying our planet.




Cable television has a comparatively low environmental impact, once the cables have been laid, but there’s increasing concern about the damage being done by cable companies when they dig up the streets. The main threat is to trees, and in the past a lot of trees have been killed or injured by slot and trench-cutting machines slicing through their roots. Now you would have thought that all it would take is a simple set of guidelines, issued to all cable TV installers, recommending that holes around trees should be dug carefully by hand, and that trees, pavements and street furniture should be re-instated to their previous condition.  Dream on; there are now at least three codes of practice in the pipeline, so to speak. One is coming from the Cable TV Association, the industry body in responsible for the infrastructure of cable television. But now it gets confusing, because the  CTVA have endorsed guidelines for contractors and hole-diggers, prepared by the Black Country Urban Forestry Council, the Tree Council and the Arborocultural Research Association. Not wishing to be left out, the Department of the Environment, backed by the CTVA, have issued a consultation document, in preparation for a definitive National code of practice, which is scheduled to be published about now. Most cable TV companies have drawn up their own guidelines which they issue to the cable layers, who in turn are contractually obliged to adhere to the official British Standard for ‘Digging Past Trees’. The question is, how many more trees are going to have to die, to provide the paper for all these documents...




If you rate satellite dishes come somewhere between stone cladding and garden gnomes don’t fret. It is still possible to enjoy multi-channel TV from space, without adding to the urban blight created by three million or so white woks hanging from the sides of British homes.  If you’re thinking of getting a satellite TV system check with the installer to find the least intrusive location, you may even find a position where the dish can be screened by buildings, plants or trees, though makes sure they won’t grow and blot out the signal in a couple of years time. Ask about alternative dish designs. Black mesh dishes blend in quite well with darker brickwork, but you could go the whole hog and have the dish, plus its mounting bracket, painted to match its surroundings. Transparent dishes or ‘clearials’ are worth thinking about, though only if you keep them reasonably clean, atmospheric pollution and bird droppings will make them stand out quite quickly. Dishes that don’t look like dishes are another possibility. Flat-plate antennas have a much slimmer profile and can sometimes be tucked away out of sight. If all else fails there’s a range of slip-on covers, printed with a range of brickwork patterns; these work quite well, though they’re a comparatively new idea and we await with interest to see how they’ll look after a couple of British Winters




How much does it cost to run your AV system? Obviously it depends on usage, the age of the equipment and the local cost of electricity but we’ve worked out some figures to give you a rough idea.


VCRs and satellite receivers tend to be quite thirsty, they’re consuming power all the time, even in the standby mode. A typical VCR uses 25 watts of electricity, 12 watts on standby; satellite receivers are a little cheaper to run, 20 watts switched on, 4 watts on standby. Thus, a VCR used for two hours each day will use 314 watts per day (2 x 25 + 22 x 12), or approximately 115 kilowatt hours (kwh) or ‘units’ of electricity in a year (314 x 365 = 114, 610). Based on London electricity prices of 7.21 pence per unit, that works out at £8.30 annually, or £9.00 with the 8% VAT. We suspect satellite receivers have a slightly longer daily usage, this offsets the lower power demands to some extent and standby consumption is much less, so we estimate they cost around £7.00 a year to run.


The power consumption of TVs vary dramatically, from more than 200 watts for a large screen stereo set at full blast, to less than 50 watts for a modest 21-incher. For the sake of argument we’ll assume the average TV consumes 75 watts, is in use for 6 hours each day, and not left in the standby mode at night. That gives us a daily figure of 450 watts, multiplied by 365, it comes to 164kwh a year. At 7.21 pence a unit that works out at £11.88 a year (£12.80 with VAT).


It’s difficult to be specific about hi-fi and AV systems, a beefy amplifier can use several hundred watts of power for brief periods, but most of us have fairly modest systems, and only use them for two or three hours a day, at reasonable volume levels. We’ll assume an average power consumption of 50 watts, for three hours each day, that’s 150 watts daily or 55kwh per year, which works out at just under £4.00, or just over £4.30 with the VAT.


Remember, these are very rough figures, and we’ve made quite a lot of assumptions, but we would guess a typical household with a reasonably modern AV system receiver can expect to spend between £30 and £40 each year on their home entertainment habit....



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