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Is my big new flat-screen TV killing the planet?

Published November 3, 2008 11:38AM (EST)

Dear Pablo,

I'll be blunt: Is my big new flat-screen TV killing the planet?

What you are referring to is the use of nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) in manufacturing LCD televisions. Back in 1992, NF3 was seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to the ozone-damaging perfluorocarbons that the semiconductor industry used in the plasma etching of silicon wafers. While this change undoubtedly had an impact on the success of the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, the international agreement to plug the ozone hole, it is now being blamed for contributing to climate change. NF3 may not damage the ozone layer, but it has been shown to be 17,200 times worse for the climate than the main climate change culprit, carbon dioxide.

So what does all of this have to do with the shiny new 50-inch high-definition LCD screen hanging on your wall? Well, NF3is used in the manufacture of LCD screens for television and computing. I was also not thrilled to learn that NF3 is used in the manufacture of "thin film" photovoltaic solar panels. A team of researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, with funding from NASA, discovered 4,200 metric tons of NF3 in the atmosphere in 2006, while the previous estimate was only 1,200 metric tons. This startling discovery means that far more NF3is evading pollution control measures and is escaping into the atmosphere.

At current rates of increase in the accumulation of NF3in the atmosphere, we will add almost 600 metric tons this year alone. While this sounds small, keep in mind that this powerful greenhouse gas is 17,200 worse than CO2and has an life expectancy of 740 years. The annual emissions of NF3are equivalent to 10,320,000 metric tons of CO2, or roughly the same impact as 2,064,000 cars have over a year!

Unfortunately this is not the only environmental impact associated with LCD televisions. According to Home Energy magazine, in 1999, 36 percent of U.S. homes had a 19-inch screen television and each used 68 watts when on. Since a flat-panel screen can be used in the smallest of rooms, provided that you have some free wall space, people are no longer settling for a modest 19-inch TV. Now you can get a massive, 82-inch LCD television.

Current market data is difficult to come by, but according to one source, 27 percent of new television sets sold in 2007 were in the 40- to 49-inch range. This clearly shows an upward trend in the size of television sets, and, unfortunately, a 47-inch LCD may average 280 watts, or four times as much electricity as the previous norm. So not only did the advance in technology mean that we are now using the highly potent greenhouse gas NF3, but also that we are using more raw materials in the production, and more electricity in the operation, of the TVs.

But with a superior viewing experience on HD LCD screens, can we realistically expect people to go back to smaller screen sizes in the name of the environment? Probably not, but there is something you can do.

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than four hours of TV each day. With a 47-inch LCD TV, you would be using almost 400 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, just on powering the television, not to mention the DVD player, the stereo, the cable box and the DVR.

But what about when you are not watching and the TV is "off"? Well, many electronics go into standby mode, meaning that they are still looking for the signal from your remote to command them back into action, but this continues to use "vampire" electricity at a scale of around 5 watts. Assuming that your TV is "off" 20 hours per day, 365 days per year, you could save 36.5 kWh just by unplugging the set completely.

Sound annoying? Well, you can put your entire entertainment center on a surge-protecting power strip and turn it all off with a flip of a switch. Some companies are also working on electrical outlets that can be switched remotely in order to turn off all unused electronics in the house when you go to bed or leave the house.

Another option: Watch less TV or try not watching TV for a month. Take the kids to the park, take the dog on a walk, read a good book, or cook your significant other a nice meal. And please, whatever you do, don't forget to vote Tuesday!


By Pablo Plastic

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