Sometimes I love how a half-dozen environmental groups work all angles to address an environmental problem. Other times, I really wish all these nonprofits would work together so I don’t feel so overwhelmed. Is it necessary for us to have Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and NRDC’s Sustainable Seafood Guide — not to mention Greenpeace’s Supermarket Scorecard for seafood and The End of the Line’s Fish2Fork? Can’t they just save money and resources by developing just one guide we can all refer to?

The same goes for electronics guides. If you’ve watched the "Story of Electronics," you know our cheap gadgets cause a lot of environmental problems — from the mining of precious metals to products coated with toxic materials to unsafe disposal of dangerous chemicals. And if you’ve ever tried to make better buying decisions about electronics, you know that the eco-guides out there are as confusing as they are plentiful.

You can get a Guide to Greener Electronics from Greenpeace that looks at companies’ “policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change,” but you’ll also have to pull up NRDC’s guide to Energy-Efficient TVs to make sure your new boob tube doesn’t suck up too much electricity while you use it — not to mention the Electronics Take Back Coalition’s Recycling Report Card for the lowdown on companies’ end-of-product-life policies.

Overwhelmed yet? Luckily a little help comes this holiday season in the form of yet another electronics guide from yet another nonprofit. But don’t worry, The 2010 Holiday Shopping Guide for Finding Greener Electronics (PDF), compiled by the Center for Environmental Health, works to tie all the other studies together into one, easily readable chart. Interested in a Dell laptop? You can quickly see all the scores Dell has gotten from various nonprofits simply by scanning one row of the chart.

Unfortunately, having all the data collected for you is unlikely to make your electronics purchasing decisions stress-free. That’s because most of the electronics companies tackle only one or two eco-issues, if that — meaning no company scores particularly well with all the nonprofits. Recently, I proudly wrote about how Dell — maker of my laptop — has a great take-back policy and recycling program. Unfortunately, Dell only scores in the middle of the pack on Greenpeace’s rankings and still makes some products containing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs).

The Center for Environmental Health’s guide also has usability issues. I had to go to Greenpeace’s site to figure out what the numbers and percentages on the chart meant, for example (so you know, higher numbers are better scores), and even called the center to figure out what “Yes” and “All” in the last green column meant (“Yes” means some products are free of PVC and BFRs; “All” meals all products are free of PVC and BFRs). 

But those are obviously minor issues compared to the big problems caused by electronics. If anything, the chart highlights for me the fact that no single company has stepped up to start addressing the full range of problems associated with electronics. Some tackle recycling, some tackle eliminating dangerous chemicals, and others tackle energy efficiency — and all will proudly tout the progress made in these individual areas, without acknowledging the work that needs to be done in other areas.

If looking at the chart has made you not want to buy the electronic gift you were planning to get, Center for Environmental Health has a solution — at least for one fan of the nonprofit. Enter to win a Red Rabbitt refurbished laptop from Redemtech, which comes with a laptop bag made from a recycled sailboat sail that’s signed by cast of “Private Practice.” Put your name in the electronic hat by 4 p.m. PST on Dec. 9 for a chance to win.

MNN homepage photo: danesteffes/iStockphoto

Holiday shopping guide for greener electronics
Center for Environmental Health's new guide attempts to consolidate electronic buying guides from many nonprofits.