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Published on December 18th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


PDAs for Greener Communiques?

Somehow, as electronics get smaller and smaller, they take over a larger and larger part of our daily lives.  PDAs, Personal Data Assistants, sometimes also known as palm PDAs or handheld PCs, were originally conceived of as convenient hand-held devices for storing and retrieving simple data, such as addresses, in a wireless environment.

Handheld Device

Like everything else electronic, PDAs have become capable of ever more complex functions—some now have many of the capabilities of a full-size computer, and they’ve become essential to business communication of all kinds.  Let’s take a look at the sustainability issues surrounding PDAs and examine some strategies for maintaing balance in our lives by keeping our use of these tech devices in check.

Sustainability challenges facing PDAs are those common to most electronics:

  • how to reduce the non-renewable energy used to create, ship, and power them
  • how to keep the toxic materials in their batteries and components out of the waste stream

Some of these issues can be addressed with new computer technology, some with manufacturing design changes and government regulations, but we can start at home with changing the way we use the PDAs we have, buy new ones, and dispose of old ones.

Keeping electronics out of the waste stream is a complex matter.  In Europe . . . . Pressure on manufacturers to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their electronic products has already shown that designing for sustainability results in simpler, less-costly design practices.

The evolving eco tech side of PDAs is that they are part of a telecommuting mobility revolution in the workplace.  Instead of everyone rushing downtown in the morning in their single-occupancy cars and then heading back home again at night, it is now possible for many workers to do most of their work at the local coffee shop or in their jammies at home.  The more people stay out of their cars, the better for the planet.

But another, and much deeper, consideration is the effect that PDAs have upon us, the way we live, interact, and perceive the world, and whether those changes are beneficial.

How They Run

PDAs run on batteries or they can be plugged into a wall with an AC adapter.  Batteries are a significant environmental problem for the planet, since they contain various highly toxic metals and chemicals that leach into landfills.  Each year, 15 billion disposable batteries are produced worldwide—a miniscule fraction of these are recycled, and even the few that end up in recycling plants are problematic.  Follow these guidelines for greener solutions to the battery problem:

  • Use your AC adapter whenever possible—it will recharge your battery as well as saving battery use.
  • Set your PDA on the lowest possible setting when not in use, and remove devices like PC cards when they’re not needed.
  • Lower sound volume and screen contrast.
  • Minimize your use of IrDA (infrared) or Serial communications, as they use a lot of power.

Rechargeable Batteries

Use rechargeable batteries such as lithium-ion (Li-Ion) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH).  The fastest chargers take as little as 15 minutes to charge AA batteries, and they will pay for themselves quickly.  Make sure you recharge your batteries correctly, which both extends their lives and ensures you won’t be stranded by battery failure. has more information on rechargeable batteries and how to recharge them.

Green Charging Options

  • Buy the most energy-efficient battery charger you can find.  The U.S. government’s EnergyStar Web site provides good information on buying an efficient battery charger.
  • Don’t forget to pull those AC adapters and battery chargers out of the wall when they’re not in use.  These devices will drain power the entire time that they’re plugged in.  A good way to remember this is to put them all on one power strip in an accessible place.
  • Instead of a charger, plug your PDA into your home computer’s USB port for recharging.
  • Even greener: recharge your batteries with a solar charger.  There are a number of solar chargers on the market that are effective for small energy users like PDAs.  Here’s a review of solar charger options.

Getting Rid of Them

Batteries aside, PDAs themselves present a recycling issue.  Electronics make up 70 percent of all hazardous waste.  Although approximately 90 percent of computer contents can be reused or recycled, facilities have not kept pace with the need.  A few states have banned electronics in landfills, and more states will soon follow suit.  Even if it isn’t against the law in your area, never dump your old PDA in the garbage.

The most energy-efficient recycling is always reuse:

It’s a double win: reuse not only keeps your PDA out of the waste stream, it allows someone else to not buy a new PDA, with all its concomitant environmental costs. Just remember to erase your data first!  Environment Health & Safety Online is a clearinghouse of electronics recycling how-to’s and donation information with links to regional sites.

Greener Future Technology

Keeping electronics out of the waste stream is a complex matter.  In Europe, companies are required to accept their products back for recycling.  This regulation has driven manufacturers toward redesigning and simplifying the component materials of their products so they can be more easily separated, sorted, and recycled.  Pressure on manufacturers to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their electronic products has already shown that sustainable design results in simpler, less-costly design practices.

EPEAT, the acronym for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, is a new system of standards for evaluating and certifying the green quotient of computers and other electronics.  Much as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) does for green building practices and materials, EPEAT provides a set of measurable performance criteria, a rating system, and a way for green IT design to be officially recognized in the marketplace.  The criteria include lifespan, energy efficiency, ease of upgrading, ease of recycling, and reduction of hazardous materials.

EPEAT-registered products are now required for all federal purchases.  The EPA predicts that within the next five years, purchases of EPEAT-registered computers could reduce hazardous waste by 4 million pounds and save enough energy to power two million homes!

Consider the Lilies of the Field

Recycled Paper Filing System

Despite the evidence, we still possess free will.  Slowing down, or even stepping away from, the techno-marketing escalator is not as hard as it sometimes seems.  Make a list of what you truly need your PDA to do, and look for a product that only has those features.  In many cases this will be not only a more energy-efficient product, but also surprisingly a better one.  For example, the best PDA for notebook use is one that doesn’t double as a cell phone (hybrids or smartphones)—they have a bigger screen, more memory, and the capability to link to a full-size keypad.

Repairing or simply making do with the equipment you already have is an increment greener.  Buying used equipment on Amazon, Ebay, or Craigslist is another good option.

Then there’s the story of No Impact Man.  Colin Beavan is a Manhattanite who decided to make a year’s experiment of adding no net impact to the environment.  Just about the time his blog started getting a lot of press, he accidentally ran over his PDA with his bicycle.  Being “No Impact Man” with a vow to buy nothing new, he couldn’t go and get another one, so he made do with a system of a stack of recycled-paper index cards held together with a clip.  It turned out that, after feeling bereft and strange for awhile, he found that it worked just fine, and he was also more productive, less distracted, more present, and of course, much greener.  Sometimes the best PDA is none at all.

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