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Earth Day Turns 40: How Tech Made Us Greener

We've come a long way since the first Earth Day in 1970. Technology has made Americans more efficient and greener without even realizing it, thanks to advances ranging from cleaner car engines to LED light bulbs to programmable thermostats.

Taxi | Getty Images

Most are cost effective, in addition to being green, which is why many of these products and ideas have stuck, says Simon Graduate School of Business Dean Mark Zupan, who studies energy and sustainability issues and the economy. "Whenever there's an increase in the price of energy, concerns over the environment go up."

Here's a look at several everyday technologies that have made us greener over the past 40 years:

Direct deposit: It wasn't until the late 1970s when the U.S. government began its employees directly into their bank accounts, according to Bill Dunn manager of government relations at the American Payroll Association.

Other employers began offering direct deposit in the 80s, after realizing how much money could be saved if they avoided printing checks. Today, some 66 percent of American's whose employers offer direct deposit are using it, says Dunn. Paper checks can use more than 674 million gallons of fuel and add 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air per year as they make their way through the payment cycle, according to the Electronic Payments Association.

Cleaner cars: In the mid 1970s, catalytic converters were added to automobiles to reduce emissions following stricter regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.

As gas prices dropped in the late 90s, the size of vehicles increased as consumers gravitated towards large, gas-sucking SUVs. Today, smaller cars and hybrids are in demand, and major automakers, such as General Motors, Ford Motor and Nissan are readying electric cars for release this year.

The progression of more fuel-efficient cars has reduced emissions 90 percent in the past 20 years, says Nabil Nasr, director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Air travel: Like cars, updates in airplane engines have made them use less fuel and fly more efficiently. Airlines have also done other tricks to save on fuel, such as not painting the body of the plane to reduce the weight of the aircraft, reducing fuel use, says Zupan.

Energy Star: Introduced in 1992 by the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Star labeled products—ranging from computers to appliances to televisions—are appliances built to reduce energy use and cut down on greenhouse glasses.

“It also makes economical sense as well as makes the product more efficient,” says Nasr.

Energy Star says that products with their label on them helped consumers and businesses save some $17 billion in energy costs in 2009.

LED lights: Light-emitting diode bulbs, better known as LED bulbs, use less energy and last longer. Cities around the country are switching incandescent bulbs for LEDs. The city of Denver, Colo., for example, began retrofitting its traffic lights to LED in the late 1990s, a move that the city says will save them $800,000 per year in energy and labor costs and cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 2,937 tons a year.

Honeywell's thermostat from 1906.
Source: Honeywell
Honeywell's thermostat from 1906.

Recycling: Hard to overlook this one. After the first Earth Day, recycling became more accepted as more Americans began separating their trash. Today, most towns and cities have recycling rules.

Technology has played a role in sorting commingled recycling—when recyclable are mixed together. They are "often separated today by mechanical equipment that uses lasers, magnets and weights of materials to accurately sort items,” says Laura Fieselman, sustainability coordinator at Meredith College. “There are usually a limited number of people involved in the process to catch any errors.”

Programmable thermostats: They’ve been around for decades (the first one was released by Honeywell in 1906), but it wasn’t until the 1970s when they became a mass-market product, says Joe Puishys, president of Honeywell’s environmental and combustion controls. The average user can save $250 to $500 a year on their energy bills, says Puishys.