Be Aware, Buy With Care! | Alliance to Save Energy

Be Aware, Buy With Care!

“The most under-developed territory in the world lies under your HAT.” – Anonymous

Teacher: Diane DeVasier, Biology, Elsinore High School, Lake Elsinore Unified School District


The average American uses fifty-four times more resources than the average citizen in a developing country. Citizens of the developed world spend 14% to 30% of their income on food, while those in developing countries spend 50% to 70%. The purpose of this exercise is to motivate student’s toward thinking about and discussing responsible consumerism as it relates to energy consumption.

  • Subject: Ecology
  • Suggested Grade Level: 9 – 12
  • California Standards Addressed:
    • Biology/Life Sciences
    • Ecology 6.b.
    • How to analyze changes in an ecosystem resulting from changes in climate, human activity, introduction of nonnative species, or changes in population size.
  • Time: Two 50-minute periods
  • Methods: Reading and Group discussion
  • Skills: Interpersonal communication and critical thinking


  • Sample products (students preference)
  • Internet photos of products, information about materials and manufacturing
  • Product table
  • Paper
  • Pencil


  1. Have students sit in a circle. Set up a hypothetical situation in which they are each getting $5,000 at the end of the lesson.
  2. Instruct students to talk about how they are going to spend their money.
  3. Read the paragraph on consumption in the reference material. (A)
  4. Discuss some of the items chosen by students. Project pictures of items and product profiles onto an LCD screen (check to see if sites are cleared by district-if not plan ahead and have students bring in magazine ads of products that they like before you begin this lesson.)
  5. Talk about what effects, if any, each item’s production, use, and/or disposal had or will have on the environment. If possible, present environmentally responsible alternatives. Note: The product reference material (C) is OPTIONAL and accompanies the lesson only to give the teacher supporting information for topics of his/her choice.
  6. Ask discussion questions below 1 – 7.
  7. Read the John F. Kennedy quote to students. (B)

For Discussion

  • Why do companies pay money to put T.V. ads on the air?
  • How much does industry contribute to environmental problems?
  • Who controls industry in our economy? Who does industry serve?
  • What does the phrase “vote with your pocketbook” mean?
  • How much influence do you think this type of “vote” has in industry, especially in regards to the environment?
  • What is the difference between things we need and things we want?
  • What should someone consider when making a purchase?


Have students find out:

  1. How much energy is required to manufacture and use one of the products or materials they would purchase with their money;
  2. The relative environmental impact of its manufacture and use; and
  3. Its renewability, reusability, and recyclability.

Reference Material

A. Consumption

Though we only see a fraction of it, Americans consume 120 pounds (nearly their average body weight) every day in natural resources extracted from farms, forests, range-lands, and mines. This is possible only because of chains of production that reach all over the planet. Most of the production, and most of the impacts, are hidden from view in rural hinterlands, fenced-off industrial sites, and far off nations.

B. Man’s Influence

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of the rest, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues; the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.” – John F. Kennedy

C. Product Reference Material


Computers are made up of a wide variety of materials: plastic, metal, silica and other minerals, rubber and glass. Many of these ingredients are found in a variety of electronic material, such as televisions and cell phones.

High turnover of computers creates a steadily growing stream of computers to landfills. This e-waste is a source of toxic heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium, which leach into the soil and underground water supplies from landfills. The average cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor contains anywhere from four to eight pounds of lead alone, according to Consumer Reports. Lead is also used to make the protective shields for computer chips. Additionally, batteries for laptops contain heavy metals like cadmium. These metals accumulate in the bodies of animals and humans until they reach toxic levels, resulting in birth defects, neurological disorders and even cancer.

Many preservatives and chemicals in the plastic components of computers are toxic, too. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) pose significant health risks like cancer and reproductive issues, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. The production of these plastics, the mining for the heavy metals and oil for the plastics, the production of electricity to power the computers, and the mining of the coal to fuel those power plants all contribute to the toxins in our air, soil and water.

The biggest actions that can reduce this drain on our resources and damage to our environment is to reduce the amount of electricity used for computers, upgrade a system instead of replacing it and recycling or donating used computers for reuse. During the 2000s, only about 20 percent of e-waste was being recycled. The remaining 80 percent went to landfills or were exported overseas to landfills in other nations like India. This is despite the fact that 90 to 95 percent of computer components are recyclable, according to Consumer Reports.

Companies are also doing their part in reducing the negative environmental impact of computer equipment. LCD monitors have replaced lead-containing CRT monitors. Companies such as National Semiconductor and Intel switched the material in their chips to a compound that does not contain lead in 2005. Companies are trying to create more environmentally friendly plastics and to use recycled materials in the manufacture of computers. Consumer support for these products will help to make them the norm.


Plastics are one of the leading producers of hazardous waste.

In landfills, toxic cadmium and lead compounds used as binders, coolants, and heat stabilizers can leach out of plastics and ooze into groundwater and surface water.Number 7 clear plastic and plastic coated aluminum food cans make your food toxic.


  • Growing cotton uses pesticides (10% of total consumption in U.S.)
  • Heavy usage of water for this crop


  • Started as petroleum
  • Processed in a refinery
  • Oil refineries pump tons of pollution into the air


  • Open pit mining
  • Mass energy consumption
  • Land disturbance, erosion

Other product types with various concerns

  • Food
  • Transportation
  • Clothing