A growing number of people in the UK are moving away from the traditional television set, especially those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, who are popularly known as ‘millennials’.
Instead a screen or projector is connected to a computer and programmes are watched via on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Apple TV, Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire. Indeed, in 2014, the number of homes claiming not to own a television at all increased by 500,000 to 1.6 million.
If TV viewing activities really were becoming consolidated in fewer devices, this reduced consumption would be good news for the environment. But (and it’s a big but) any gains may well be tempered by increased hours of usage and therefore greater energy consumption. And, if everyone in a household has their own tablet, smartphone or computer to watch TV on, then impacts may well increase.
Plasma is Dead
The biggest tech news since our last guide in 2009 is that plasma is dead. Panasonic stopped producing plasma screen TVs in 2013, swiftly followed the next year by Samsung. This is good news for the environment as plasma was the most power-hungry of screen types, using two to three times as much energy as an LCD (liquid crystal display) or LED (light emitting diode) screen.
Five years ago LCD TVs dominated the market, making up nearly two thirds of all TV sales. Since then they’ve been beaten into second place by LED TVs, whose market share in 2013 was over 83%. LED sets use a similar screen technology to LCD but are more energy efficient. Some have also claimed that Organic LED (OLED) sets are more energy efficient than LCD and LED TVs, although Which? found little difference (see our top 10 most energy efficient TVs opposite).
These developments in screen type are accompanied by an almost bewildering array of choices of picture resolution (HD, Ultra HD, 4K) and features (curved screen, smart TV, 3D, wifi etc.). Here at Ethical Consumer our main concerns are the materials used to create products, their energy efficiency during use and how they are dealt with as waste. Readers interested in learning more about screen resolution and features should consult technical guides such as Techradar and Cnet to learn about the different options.
The EU energy efficiency label
Televisions are becoming more energy efficient, helped in part by the introduction of the EU energy labelling scheme for televisions in 2010. At first TVs were rated using the basic A to G scale but this changed as the efficiency of the appliance improved. Currently TVs are rated A+ to F, which will shift to A++ to E in 2017 and then to A+++ to D in 2020.
With energy labels it is tempting to read the headline energy efficiency class, the A or A+ rating, and then look no further. But the devil is in the detail.
As well as overall energy efficiency, the EU energy label also shows the in-use power consumption in watts and the annual power consumption in kWh based on 4 hours’ usage per day. It also tells consumers whether the TV has a power button, enabling you to switch off the TV completely rather than leave it in ‘standby’ mode, which continues to use energy. According to the Energy Saving Trust, over 75% of people leave televisions and other devices on standby, mostly because it is more convenient. This wastes energy and adds £20-£30 to household bills each year.
It is also important to think about screen size and picture quality. As you might expect, the larger the screen the more energy required to power it. Similarly, high definition TVs have more pixels per square inch, which is more power intensive than a ‘standard density’ (SD) television.
Overall, the EU energy labelling system is of limited use when comparing TVs of different sizes and screen types if you just look at the energy efficiency rating, the A or A+. Under the scheme, a huge TV using 63 kWh annually receives a better energy efficiency rating than a much smaller TV using 23 kWh annually. Or two TVs of the same size may both fall under the A+ rating but they may not use the same amount of energy. This is both unfair and misleading for consumers. You need to look at the annual energy consumption figure, given in kWh/annum, to see which TV uses the least energy.
Top 10 TVs ranked by in-use energy consumption
While none of the major online retail sites for televisions (Co-operative Electrical, John Lewis, Curry’s/PC World, Tesco Direct, Amazon, Richer Sounds) allow models to be sorted by their energy efficiency rating, the independent energy efficiency website www.sust-it.net lists over 300 televisions in terms of their in-use and standby running costs per day and per year, and users can sort by screen size and type. The Energy Saving Trust’s comparison site, www.toptenuk.org, shows the best performers for energy efficiency within different size brackets only.
The Philips’ website gives the EU energy efficiency rating for its TVs but does not allow users to sort by this criterion.
In December 2014 the BBC reported that, despite increasing purchases of large TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets, the average person in the UK used 10% less electricity than in 2009 and that consumption of all energy was at its lowest in nearly 30 years. But the in-use energy efficiency of a television is of course only part of the ecological footprint of the device.
What would these figures look like if they included energy use involved in the manufacture of new electrical devices and the disposal of old ones? British consumers may trade in their power-hungry plasma TV for an LED model and feel good about saving money and energy, but these savings are at the expense of countries producing and disposing of electronic devices.
Other Eco Labels
Embodied energy and wider environmental impact data for televisions is not easy to come by. According to the EU’s own catalogue there are no Ecolabel televisions available in the UK.
Other European countries operate ecolabel schemes of their own and some companies in our report have models certified under these schemes. Four of Philips’ Smart LED sets carry Germany’s Blue Angel label but none of them are available in the UK. The Nordic Ecolabel (Nordic Swan) certifies products available in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland, and nearly all of the TVs with this label are made by Samsung. Similarly, the US-based EPEAT scheme has certified 108 Samsung televisions but none are available in the UK.
Manufacturers themselves are oddly shy about highlighting such larger-scale eco-credentials of their products. LG, Sharp and Samsung have special webpages outlining in general terms that many of their products are ecolabel certified but it is remarkably difficult to ascertain exactly to which ones this applies.
Another key issue in the electronics industry is the use of toxic chemicals, particularly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), as they have a significant environmental impact after disposal.
For televisions, only Sony and Toshiba received our ‘best’ rating for toxics (see table above). In 2012 Toshiba set a goal of using substitute materials to replace PVC and BFR contained in products across a total of eighty product groups by 2015. Sony had a target of eliminating PVC and BFR from all of its products by March 2016, the end of its Green Management 2015 programme.
LG, Philips and Samsung received a ‘middle’ rating because, although they had plans to phase out PVC and BFR, they had given no target dates for achieving this.