Home & Office

6 best ways to make your gadget use greener (and save money, too)

Not sure how to be sustainable when it comes to your devices? Here are some ways you can make an impact on sustainability.
Written by Allison Murray, Staff Writer
A girl holding her arms out in a forest
Image: Maridav / Shutterstock

Everyone knows basic ways to have a gentler environmental impact: recycle plastic and aluminum, walk or take public transport if you can, turn off the lights when you leave a room, unsubscribe to junk snail mail and more.

Sure, you can reduce, reuse, and recycle all you want, but when it comes to our tech devices, we could do a lot to be more sustainable.

The idea of sustainability is broad, but experts recommend looking at not only what tech products you buy, but how you use your devices can make even a little impact on being more "green" with technology.

Image: Nipitpon Singad / EyeEm--Gettyimages

Take stock of your own sustainability and look at your lifestyle

According to the Nature Conservancy, the average US citizen has a yearly carbon footprint of 16 tons, compared to the global rate of about four tons.

When looking at our own impact on sustainability, Ed Anderson, a distinguished analyst at Gartner, says you should consider what sustainability means, and what's important to you individually.

"If you actually ask people, 'What do you mean by sustainability?' it's harder to get to something more concrete," he tells ZDNET. "So, the competencies for us this year will be to understand what sustainability really looks like."

Sustainability for each person could be different, especially depending on your lifestyle. The Nature Conservatory has a handy sustainability calculator that estimates your carbon footprint based on where you live, how often you travel, what car you drive, and your diet.

So sure, you could recycle plastic water bottles, but maybe you throw away old phones or GPS devices in the trash as soon as they stop working? Anderson says every little habit counts when it comes to sustainability, and utilizing technology in the right way to help us gauge our carbon footprint is vital.

"We need to get to this point where it's not just about sustainability; it's about the specific things, the specific activities that lead us to the right sustainability outcomes," he says.

Recycle your devices, but make sure it's the proper way

Recycling your old devices should be as easy as purchasing them, but not everyone knows how or where to get rid of old gadgets, resulting in a growing amount of electronic waste (e-waste).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in America: the world produces as much as 50 million metric tons of e-waste annually.

Also: The best green phones: Sustainable and eco-friendly smartphones

If you're not already recycling your unused smartphones, cameras, computers, and other gadgets, you should be. The good news is there's many ways and various places where you can properly recycle your old tech gadgets.

Best Buy Recycling:

Your local Best Buy accepts old electronics (up to three items per household per day) to recycle. Best Buy takes everything from appliances to inks and toners to video game consoles and even robot vacuums.


You can trade in your old devices for Amazon gift cards. The Amazon Trade-In portal lets you turn in Amazon devices, such as Kindles, Fire tablets, Echo speakers, or Ring doorbells, for up to 25% off a new qualifying Amazon device.

Samsung Take Back & Recycling Program:

Samsung has e-waste collection sites in all 50 states, so you can easily drop off used tech products. You can drop off electronics at one of the Samsung Experience Stores and Samsung Care locations or one of 500 uBreakiFix locations, a partner of Samsung. The company reuses and recycles all devices into a product that can be used again.

Apple's Trade-In Program:

For Apple users, you can trade in any device in any condition, and Apple will give you credit towards a new device, and recycle it for free. You can recycle any Apple-owned brand devices at Apple Stores or through apple.com.

Upcycle your devices

On the flip side, your outdated smartphone doesn't have to get recycled to give it a new life. Upcycling your old devices to bring new life to them is a great way to be sustainable with technology.

Mark Newton, head of North America corporate sustainability at Samsung, says success is not just upcycling the product, but using it to solve a real problem. Samsung's program is an example of upcycling done right -- its Galaxy Upcycling Program allows customers to use their older Samsung phones for new uses, reducing the need to recycle the devices altogether.

For example, through the Samsung SmartThings app, consumers can utilize an old Samsung phone to turn it into something that controls their smart home devices, such as lights or the TV.

"You can take advantage of all the sensors and capabilities that an old phone may have. It's got cameras, a microphone, and even connectivity in many cases. And so that's a great way to add some value to our customers in the home," Newton tells ZDNET.

But the program has other applications; Newton says Samsung has used upcycling for education and even medical purposes as well.

Man using a Samsung phone attached to an eye lens to do an eye exam on someone
Image: Samsung

"One example is we created an augmented lens that worked with an old phone that maybe wasn't good for a phone anymore. But when it was connected to this lens, which was very easy and inexpensive to produce, it created a screening device that could be handed to aid workers for the visually impaired," says Newton.

"We're able to get very inexpensive devices to aid organizations that don't have resources for expensive devices that would be manufactured for that specific purpose."

And if you don't have a Samsung phone, there are still ways to upcycle. For example, you can install a surveillance camera app, such as Alfred, on both your old and new devices, then place the old phone where you need it for an instant security camera.

In addition, you can dedicate an entire phone as a GPS device to increase your primary phone battery's lifespan.  

Become an educated consumer

Newton says sustainability is not simply about doing the right things but also about supporting the right companies and making informed buying decisions.

"If you try to do a little bit of homework -- besides just looking at the price of something -- and learn a little bit more about the company, that goes a long way when it comes to sustainability," he says.

"Let's say you take a flight and are deciding between airlines. If the schedules and pricing are close, look at what their fuel profile looks like and how they're operating. The tiebreaker could be that a certain airline is really considering some of these things that are important, like the greenhouse gas impact of getting from point A to point B."

Plenty of companies have made net-zero pledges, so investigate a specific company if you want to buy a particular product to see if they have sustainability goals. The Climate Pledge is an excellent resource for seeing which tech companies have signed a pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions in their processes and productions by 2040. There are currently 380 signatures. which includes companies like HP, Logitech, Philips, and others.

In addition, pay attention to companies such as Samsung that build recycled materials into their products. The new Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is made up of 12 internal and external components of recycled material. The iPhone 14 Pro, meanwhile, is made with 100% recycled gold in the wire of all its cameras, and 100% recycled rare earth elements in all its magnets.

Utilize smart home automations

You probably have some sort of smart home device installed in your home. Aside from asking Alexa or Google what the weather is like today, you can utilize these devices to make your home more energy efficient.

"If you think about how people manage their thermostats today, they just set them and forget them, right? But an automated system can be much more adaptive," Gartner's Anderson says. "It can turn the temperature up or down based on, not only who's in the house, but who's in the room."

Ecobee Smart Thermostat Premium
Image: Amazon

Since heating and cooling are responsible for almost 50% of energy use in an average US home, smart home products can help you consume less energy while saving cash on your bill.

Look into intuitive smart thermostats like Nest or Ecobee with voice-control features and ambient temperature sensors. In addition, Neurio is a smart energy monitor that gives you real-time monitoring to see where energy is being used in your house, track your appliance use, and compare your home energy use to others.

Don't upgrade if you don't have to

Finally, one thing we can almost always count on in the tech world is new model releases of our favorite smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Unfortunately, having the shiniest and latest piece of tech isn't always the most sustainable.

"You really want to keep using [devices] as long as you can," says Newton.

"It's helpful to think about it holistically -- like I might want something new, but is it beneficial for me to get a new one? Is a specific device made with recycled material, or will it help me save energy? Or can I just fix my current device and keep using it? Those decisions are important."

For example, if you were expecting more significant design changes between models, it might not be worth getting the latest smartphone. If a new model is similar in the overall design approach, software experience, and hardware, you can hold off on getting a newer model until more significant changes are introduced.

Editorial standards