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Mary Mazzoni headshot

No, Your Netflix Binge Isn't Killing the Planet, But These 5 Gadget Habits Could Be

By Mary Mazzoni
Friends streaming on Netflix on a TV in a living room

(Image: Mahrous Houses/Unsplash)

This story is part of Entertainment Month in TriplePundit's Sustainable Living Challenge, where we unpack simple ways to save money and reduce environmental impact in the ways we have fun. Learn more and take the challenge here.

Every year or two, news headlines and online memes start to circulate warning that our video streaming binges create significant greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. 

These claims have largely been debunked. Yes, streaming Netflix — or using the internet for anything — is associated with energy use on your device and at the data centers that power the internet. This energy use translates to carbon emissions, but the impact is much less than what's often reported. Streaming 45 minutes of video is roughly equivalent to driving a gas-powered car for four miles, according to analyses from the International Energy Agency and PolitiFact

When it comes to how our gadget use impacts the environment, streaming is far down the list of things to worry about, but you may want to consider the following sustainable gadget habits if you're looking to cut your impact down to size. 

Keep your devices longer 

Generally speaking, far more environmental impact is created by manufacturing our devices — and sourcing the materials needed to produce them — than we'll create by switching them on and going about our daily tasks. Apple, for example, discloses the lifecycle carbon footprint for all of its devices, and the lion's share is attributed to production. 

That means keeping your electronics longer is good for the planet, not to mention your wallet. Extending the life of your devices also reduces unnecessary electronic waste, the processing of which poses serious human rights concerns around the world. 

Using protective phone, laptop and tablet cases can reduce the risk of accidents, while deleting old files and unused apps can free up memory and keep your devices running faster. And make sure to turn them off: Keeping your devices on or in sleep mode for weeks without powering them down shortens their lifespan

A few simple shifts can also help to extend battery life, one of the top reasons for trading in old devices. To make batteries last longer, avoid letting your battery discharge below 20 percent, and unplug it when it reaches about 80 percent if you can, scientists who study lithium-ion batteries told the Washington Post. Don't stress about charging your devices overnight, but avoid leaving them plugged in all day. And as sad as we are to say it, fast charging also stresses your batteries, so save it for cases when you're in a hurry and opt for a standard charger for daily use. 

If you find yourself reaching for a charger multiple times a day, you can often make a device last years longer by simply replacing the battery. If you're bold enough to do it yourself, iFixIt has a vast library of repair guides and replacement parts. Computer repair shops and retailers like Best Buy and Apple will also replace batteries for you, or fix other common issues like a cracked screen. 

Make simple shifts to save energy

Most of the energy use associated with scrolling social media, streaming audio and video, and browsing the web actually comes from your device. "For example, a 50-inch LED television consumes much more electricity than a smartphone (100 times) or laptop (five times)," according to the International Energy Agency's analysis.

When shopping for electronics, look for certifications that indicate the device is energy efficient, such as the Energy Star seal in the U.S., the European Union Energy Labels in Europe, or these other global eco-labels.

You can also save money and energy by cutting off what's called "vampire energy," or the energy large devices use to remain in standby mode even when switched off. This may seem insignificant, but an estimated 10 percent of electricity use in U.S. households can be attributed to vampire energy, at a cost of up to $200 annually. Simply put larger electronics such as televisions, sound systems and desktop computers on a power strip, and flip it off when they aren't in use. 

Purchase secondhand devices when you can 

Secondhand is a solid option when you see little meaningful difference between older models and the new ones on the shelf. A waterproof bluetooth speaker for lounging poolside, a starter gaming console for kids, or a keyboard for your ergonomic office setup are just a few examples of cases when you can save money and environmental impact by choosing secondhand.

Your local thrift store is a good place to start, but warranty options may be unavailable and you'll need to confirm the device is in working order. Refurbished electronics can offer a greater degree of assurance. Though it's different for each retailer, "refurbished" generally means the device was inspected and repaired if necessary. Some retailers, including Apple, Bose, Microsoft and Samsung, even provide a one-year warranty for refurbished electronics. Check out this roundup from Engadget to find brands and retailers that sell refurbished tech.  

Clean up your cloud space 

When you back up your photos or archive your emails, that data has to be stored somewhere. Global energy use associated with the data centers that power cloud storage is estimated at around 0.30 percent of global carbon emissions. While it's not monumental in the grand scheme of things, it's way more than the energy required to store data on an external hard drive

Reduce your contribution to cloud clutter and unnecessary carbon emissions by turning off cloud backups that you don't need and keeping an eye on your cloud folders. Removing 30 versions of the same selfie will be much easier once a week or once a month than it will be if you wait two years and have to deal with thousands of photos. Transferring documents, photos and videos you know you want to keep from your cloud folder to an external hard drive, if you have one, will also reduce emissions and save you money on extra cloud storage space. 

Similarly, when it comes to emails, avoid hitting the "archive" button absent-mindedly. If you think you'll need it later, go ahead and archive, but "delete" should be your default for things you'll never read again. 

Tell companies you care about sustainability for devices and data centers 

Ideally, you'd never have to think about any of this, because data centers would be powered by renewable energy and devices would be manufactured to high environmental and human welfare standards. Although tech companies are making improvements, this is far from the case today.

Companies generally take an issue more seriously if they know it's something their customers pay attention to and care about. Make your voice heard by reaching out to the tech companies you do business with — and large data center operators — on social media or through the contact forms on their websites. Let them know you seek out energy-efficient devices and care about data centers improving their energy use and switching to renewable energy.

It may seem trivial, but it's really the most influential item on this list. If big companies hear the urge from their customers to make more changes, the footprint of our favorite gadgets could shrink on a massive scale. 

How do you reduce the environmental impact of your devices? Tell us about it at editorial@3blmedia.com. 

Homepage image: Mollie Sivaram/Unsplash

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni