Dear Umbra,

My husband and I are going to be buying a new television soon. Between an LCD and a plasma set, which is the more environmentally friendly?

Lorraine B.
Ossining, N.Y.

Dearest Lorraine,

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Welcome to the promised follow-up to our previous examination of the digital television revolution. This week we finally take an opportunity for tortured reference to the revolution being digitized. I suppose everyone is probably making that joke. You heard it here last.

Two too many?

To recap the situation as seen from television-free floor 2B: there are around 275 million TVs in the U.S. These historically were cathode-ray sets receiving analog signals. All stations are to convert to digital signal by mid-June, hastening the obsolescence of analog-only CRTs, the sale of digital converter sets, and the potential change to LCD, plasma, or rear-projection televisions. Last time we learned that CRT recycling is possible and urgent, that Energy Star certifies digital converter boxes, and that Umbra thinks Jon Stewart is cute. Luckily for me I can watch his digital likeness over the internets.

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Some have the money and desire, or need, to buy an entirely new television, which unfortunately means wading into the electronics shopping vortex. Not for the faint of heart — or for the broke. I can’t believe how much these things cost. Anyway, here is some advice relayed from various savvy organizations.

First of all, Energy Star requirements for televisions became more stringent last November, and Energy Star TVs are touted as “up to 30 percent more efficient than non-qualified models.” So they are an obvious, good choice. The ES site lists all certified models in a comparison chart, and also provides an energy savings worksheet.

In general, from what I read on CNET and Consumer Reports, when per-inch consumption is measured, LCD televisions are more efficient than plasma, and rear-projection is slightly more efficient than LCD. Screen size is key to power consumption; a smaller plasma, for instance, will be comparable to a larger LCD.

Big plasma sets are scary. For instance, Consumer Reports‘ chart shows a 42-inch plasma running yearly costs similar to an efficient 25-cubic-foot refrigerator. In fact, it’s possible the EU will set energy standards for TVs that will effectively ban large plasma screens altogether.

Beyond energy consumption, there are also manufacturing impacts to think about. LCDs contain a bit of mercury, and their manufacture uses the potent greenhouse gas nitrogen trifluoride (NF3); plasma screens can contain lead (though Panasonic has apparently found a way around that).

These are sad facts, but please consider long-term carbon footprint above all other issues. First of all, you should keep your television for a long time — it’s the ecologically correct thing to do. In a long-term appliance relationship, the operating phase is the most significant phase environmentally. If you are buying new (or new to you), use the CNET reviews and Consumer Reports to figure out a range of TVs that will suit your family’s needs for years to come. Choose the one with good performance reviews and small energy footprint. These steps are important.

After you bring your new TV home, continue to be mindful. Phantom power is a big problem: unplug the thing, and its accoutrements, when you are not using it. Use a power strip. And far in the future, recycle your TV.


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