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EconoGreen Plastics(TM) bags

Looking for an eco-friendly alternative to your typical plastic trash bag? Check out the line of EconoGreen Plastics bags (and dropcloths) from the whimsically named Jig-A-Loo company.

Jig-A-Loo claims the bags are made from 100% recycled plastic and that they will completely biodegrade leaving “no harmful residue or toxins” in about two years in the environment. (Traditional plastic bags might take up to 1,000 years to degrade in the environment, according to one source I found.)

For a good analysis of the pros and cons of biodegradable plastic bags, check out this article at Natural-Environment.com.

As far as I’m concerned, if you have a choice, it’s typically better to pick a product that’s made from recycled materials and biodegrades as quickly as possible. On both counts, EconoGreen Plastics bags seem to fit the bill.

Incidentally, the bags are also made in North America. For U.S. Consumers, that means fewer resources were used to transport the bags from point of manufacture to point of sale.

Where to Buy – Use the Store Locator on the Jig-A-Loo website to find a retail location near you. You can also buy through the Jig-A-Loo website ($3.99 for 30 tall kitchen bags).

Disclaimer – Jig-A-Loo sent me a free package of EconoGreen bags to review.

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Electrolux UltraSilencer Green

Electrolux UltraSilencer Green canister vacuum cleaner

Electrolux UltraSilencer Green canister vacuum cleaner

In August 2008, I reviewed an energy-efficient Eureka vacuum cleaner called the envirovac.

At the time, I gave the envirovac a thumbs up for performance, design and value. The bagless washable canister and filter meant that the vacuum wouldn’t have any obvious recurring costs beyond its ultra-reasonable $72.22 price (via Wal-Mart).

But not everyone likes an upright vacuum. You can be an upstanding citizen (or even a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade) and still prefer a canister vacuum for example. (Here’s a webpage by one canister-lover.)

So I was happy to have the chance to test the new Electrolux UltraSilencer Green canister vacuum that debuted in the US just a couple of months ago.

Although it sounds like some sort of weapon that 007 would use to dispatch his enemies in secret, the UltraSilencer Green is actually just a really quiet vacuum (maximum 71 decibels). If other vacuums sound like garbage trucks, the UltraSilencer Green is like a well-tuned Mazda Miata.

Electrolux UltraSilencer Green canister vacuum cleaner

Electrolux UltraSilencer Green canister vacuum cleaner

The UltraSilencer is not only compact and nicely designed, it’s also lightweight and easy to transport around the house. The Electrolux website says the vac tips the scales at approximately 12 lbs. For comparison, Wal-Mart lists the shipping weight of the envirovac as nearly 20 lbs., though the comparison is obviously not apples-to-apples since packaging can certainly add to the shipping weight.

And while Eureka had packaged the envirovac in a recycled box, Electrolux goes one step further by reportedly using 55% recycled materials in the construction of the UltraSilencer Green, while making the vacuum itself 90% recyclable. I love the cradle-to-cradle design philosophy at work here, and Electrolux says that using the recycled materials in building the UltraSilencer Green saves 2 liters of crude oil and 80 liters of water per vacuum cleaner. ((Note that there are various UltraSilencers made by Electrolux. I presume that only the Green one has the recycled/recyclable characteristics.)

From a performance standpoint, I have to admit that I probably like the feel of upright vacuums a bit better, but I did appreciate the light weight and flexibility of the UltraSilencer Green’s long hose. With enough use, I’d probably get used to manuevering the UltraSilencer Green around the apartment. Suction was certainly more than adequate enough to pick up small debris from hardwood floors and low-pile carpet. (In fact, the suction was strong enough to lift entire unsecured carpet tiles right into the air!)

I only really have one major gripe about the UltraSilencer Green. Although the Electrolux UltraSilencer Green is advertised as being 1/3 greener than comparable vacuums (presumably canister vacs), its 1250-watt maximum power usage is still significantly higher than the 960-watt needs of the 2008 envirovac. Since I like to that that efficiency marches hand in hand with progress into the future, it would have been nice if the UltraSilencer Green had used fewer than 960 watts, but perhaps canister vacs just have higher power needs (and better suction?) than upright vacs…

Electrolux UltraSilencer Green canister vacuum cleaner

Electrolux UltraSilencer Green canister vacuum cleaner

Where to buy:

You can buy the Electrolux UltraSilencer Green online through Bed Bath & Beyond for $299.

Disclosure – Electrolux lent me an UltraSilencer Green vacuum to review.

Tidbits – SNO:LA organic frozen yogurt, ZT Rooibos Tea, Sentina LED lights, Earthworm cleaning products, Intercontinental Chicago O’Hare

Here are some recent eco-friendly product tidbits:

SNO:LA organic frozen yogurt - available in California and Japan

SNO:LA organic frozen yogurt - available in California and Japan

– Travelers (or residents) in Beverly Hills, California or Santa Monica can enjoy organic frozen yogurt made from all-natural ingredients (including probiotics) at SNO:LA. There’s also an outpost in Kyoto, Japan. The shops use eco-friendly decor and consider themselves ‘no-plastic-zones’ by choosing to use biodegradable/compostable materials such as sugar cane, corn and potatos for their cups and spoons.

ZT Rooibos Red Tea organic beverage

ZT Rooibos Red Tea organic beverage

ZT Rooibos Tea made from the South African rooibos plant is an all-natural beverage with organic ingredients like brown rice syrup and inulin (for fiber). Tasty, slightly sweet, low calorie and healthy, it’s an interesting and complex alternative to regular iced teas. (Note that rooibos teas a.k.a. red teas are herbal teas, different from the black, green, oolong and white teas that come from the Camellia sinensis plant.) The ZT website has an interesting explanation of the nutritional benefits of its rooibos teas. ZT’s teas are available in several flavors including vanilla, lemon and ginseng & honey, but I think the regular unsweetened variety is complex and interesting enough on its own. Available at various natural food stores nationwide including Whole Foods Market, ZT teas have an MSRP of $1.79 – $1.99 per 16-ounce bottle.

The Sentina Zen Light with motion and photo sensor uses only 3 watts of electricity

The Sentina Zen Light with motion and photo sensor uses only 3 watts of electricity

Datexx offers several appealing Sentina LED lighting products for the home. This family of emergency and safety lights include features such as a crank generator, motion sensor and power outage sensor. Cost for these lights is in the $30-45 range. As usual with LED lights, these products consume very little power (just 3 watts in the case of the Sentina Zen Light) and should last a long time.

Earthworm biodegradable cleaning products use enzymes to break down grease, dirt and other organic materials

Earthworm biodegradable cleaning products use enzymes to break down grease, dirt and other organic materials

Earthworm cleaning products use natural enzymes instead of harsh chemicals to clear drains, clean surfaces, remove odors and perform other household tasks. I didn’t have any luck using Earthworm to clear my own sink drain (it was a heavy-duty job that ultimately required a trained plumber), but you may have better luck if your drain is only a little bit slow or if you’re just looking for a maintenance solution to keep the drain running freely. Here’s a nice explanation of how enzymes work as cleaners. I do like the fact that Earthworm products are biodegradable and much safer for humans and other animals than traditional harsh chemical cleaners.

– The new Intercontinental hotel at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport provides an eco-friendly option for travelers to the Second City. The hotel purchases its energy through 100% renewable wind energy credits, uses CFL and LED bulbs throughout the property, places recycling bins in guest rooms to reduce the waste stream and offers guests water packaged in biodegradable bottles. A green roof covered with trays containing three inches of soil plus wheat grass and sedum helps slash cooling costs and should last 2-3 times as long as a typical industrial roof. Rates for November start around $225/night during the week or just $127/night on weekends according to the hotel’s website.

Disclosure – ZT Rooibos and Earthworm provided me with a complimentary product samples for testing purposes.

My Favorite Product – Neil Wertheimer likes cork flooring, Pristine Eco Spec Paint and Solar Path Lights

1GreenProduct.com is pleased to feature the recommendation of guest expert Neil Wertheimer, Editor in Chief of the Home & Garden and Health & Wellness Group, a $200 million-plus publishing business of the Reader’s Digest Association that includes the new Fresh Home magazine.

Neil recommends

Cork flooring

Pristine Eco Spec Paint by Benjamin Moore

Solar Path Lights from Plow & Hearth

In Neil’s words:

On cork flooring: “We used 12″x24″ cork tiles in our kitchen when we remodeled and have been thrilled with their performance, comfort, ease and warmth. (Literally — cork stays warmer than wood or tile, which means a lot to our feet in winters.) Plus the look is handsome and distinctive. We always get comments.”

On the Pristine Eco Spec paint: “It has zero VOCs (volatile organic compounds, the most harmful chemical in most paints) and goes on surfaces beautifully. We just used a semi-gloss version on a large shelving unit and loved the sheen and color. And no toxic fumes!”

On the Solar Path lights: “These solar lights work really well, thanks to better solar light collection, more efficient LED bulbs and dual rechargeable batteries in each light. Plus they have style. I installed several of these lights a year ago along my front walk, and they have worked every day, rain or shine.”

Marcal Small Steps and CVS Earth Essentials paper products

Marcal Earth Essentials line of household products made from recycled paper

Marcal Earth Essentials line of household products made from recycled paper

Back in March, I talked about the importance of buying recycled paper products in order to save old growth trees. I wrote about some available options including Green Forest, Earth Friendly and Seventh Generation.

Recently I’ve had a chance to try some additional recycled paper products from Marcal and CVS. Based on my experience both brands, I think there’s no logical reason for an eco-conscious consumer to keep buying non-recycled paper products.

Even a few years ago, I have to admit that I wasn’t happy with the quality of recycled paper products. I remember one time buying brown recycled paper towels that pretty much disintegrated on contact with water. It was a long time before I bought another roll of recycled paper towels.

But both the CVS Earth Essentials brand of paper towels and Marcal Small Steps perform comparably to plenty of their non-recycled counterparts. (Sure, they don’t have the softness and strength of premium paper towels like Viva, but for a disposable paper product, I’ll happily accept a little less durability and aesthetics in exchange for a major improvement in eco-friendliness.)

One thing to keep in mind is that the percentage of recycled material and the percentage of post-consumer recycled material can differ among brands and even within brands when looking at different types of products.

CVS Earth Essentials 100% recycled fiber paper towels

CVS Earth Essentials 100% recycled fiber paper towels

So, for example, both Earth Essentials and Small Steps paper towels are labeled as having 100% recycled content, but the Earth Essentials towels say that they have a minimum of 60% post-consumer content, while the Small Steps towels don’t list the percentage of post-consumer content. (A Greenpeace report says that both Small Steps paper towels and paper napkins actually have an impressive 70% percent post-consumer content, but then notes that Small Steps facial tissues only have 30% post-consumer content.)

How do the products perform in real life? As noted above, both Earth Essentials and Small Steps towels get the job done in competent fashion. They even look pretty much identical – white (but not blinding white thanks to their avoidance of chlorine bleaching) with a heart-shaped design. Under close examination, the Earth Essentials towels seem a little bit more substantial, but the difference is slight. In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with either paper towel (or with the 365 brand recycled paper towels from Whole Foods Market, which contain 80% post-consumer recycled paper content according to their packaging and the Greenpeace report cited earlier).

I also had a chance to test the Small Steps napkins (excellent, but packaged in way too much heavy-duty plastic) and the Small Steps facial tissues (not luxurious, but perfectly acceptable if you’re willing to sacrifice a little bit of nasal pampering in order to save trees).

By the way, Marcal may be making such good recycled paper products thanks to a wealth of expertise gathered over more than 50 years of producing recycled products. A Marcal spokesperson says that Marcal products have been 100% recovered fiber/recycled paper for more than a half century.

The fact is that buying recycled paper products should no longer be seen as a sacrifice. As with other eco-friendly products, the cost and performance is often the same or even better than with non-recycled products.

As a side note, CVS is using some other interesting materials in its Earth Essentials brand. You can now buy disposable plates and bowls made from bagasse – the pulp or residue left over from sugarcane processing.

The unbleached bagasse plates and bowls in the Earth Essentials collection are more sturdy and aesthetically pleasing than many traditional paper plates/bowls. In fact, I’d say they are comparable in sturdiness to disposable plastic plates and bowls, with bagasse having the added advantages of being microwavable, biodegradable and resistant to both oil and water. Depending on what you put in them, you may even be able to rinse and reuse the bagasse plates and bowls a couple of times.

By the way, as I mentioned in my review of the Staples bagasse notebook last year, bagasse paper products have a delightful smoothness to them. I hope that more companies will consider replacing some of their paper pulp products with bagasse in the near future.

Where to Buy:

You can find some of the CVS Earth Essentials products at CVS.com. The Earth Essentials paper towels were recently on sale with three rolls for $1.99. Bagasse plates and bowls have an MSRP of $2.50 for packs of 15.

If you don’t see what you’re looking for online (I couldn’t find the bagasse plates and bowls), try visiting a CVS store near you.

Marcal says that its Small Steps products will be sold at Walgreens and Kmart stores nationwide, but that not all stores had the products in stock when we checked a few months ago. To be safe, use the Store Finder to find a retailer near you selling the Marcal Small Steps recycled paper products.

Umbra Mezzo trash can

It’s important to think about the biodegradability of the trash you discard, but what about the trash can itself?

That’s where Umbra’s Mezzo trash can comes into the picture. This 2.5 gallon round can with a 9-inch diameter is designed by the irrepressible David Quan and made from virgin polypropylene.

What’s so exciting about that? After all, isn’t polypropylene just another plastic fated to little landfills or oceans forever?

Apparently not. The word from Quan is that Umbra has added a biodegradable additive to the plastic that creates “optimum conditions for biota to break down the complex hydrocarbon chain (polypropylene) into biomass. Eventually the hydrocarbons are metabolized into H2O [water] and CO2 [carbon dioxide].”

Quan adds that the Umbra Mezzo did get a passing grade on the ASTM test 5538 for what is considered biodegradable. He says the Mezzo can also passed several environmental toxicity tests.

So if you need a compact trash can with a snazzy swinging lid that keeps malodorous odors and unsightly sights at bay, the Umbra Mezzo could be just the ticket.

Where to buy:

You can find the Mezzo trash can ($16) in both bronze and silver/nickel on Umbra’s website or at other online retailers like Amazon.com.

Offline (or online), try retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond or The Container Store to see if they have the Mezzo in stock. Or check out Umbra’s helpful store locator to find a retailer near you that might have the can on hand.

Vizio VO320E 32-inch LCD HDTV with Eco HD Performance

Vizio's energy-efficient VO320E 32-inch LCD TV

Vizio's energy-efficient VO320E 32-inch LCD TV

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I’d like to elaborate on a theme I raised a couple of weeks ago regarding the amazing advances in technology.

Free enterprise and capitalist competition sometimes (deservedly) get a bad rap for encouraging greed and gluttony, but the flip side is that this same competition is spurring firms to develop better products with a small physical and environmental footprint.

Last month, I talked about this phenomenon in the desktop PC market where my new Compaq CQ2009F computer uses approximately 70% less energy than the seven-year old machine it replaced, weighs 70% less (fewer raw material inputs), takes up less space and costs approximately 70% less than the previous machine.

The same forces are at work in other technology markets, including of course the television market. When my bought my last TV (again about seven years ago), I think the only two options were CRT tubes and projection televisions. Both types of sets were large, bulky and heavy. I bought a 20-inch Sony TV on 86th Street in Manhattan, found that the box was too big to fit into the trunk or backseat of a taxi cab and nearly gave myself a hernia trying to carry the box 8 or 9 blocks to my apartment. The TV weighed nearly 70 lbs.

I’m a value shopper. Last month, I finally decided that prices had fallen far enough that I could justify upgrading to a widescreen 32-inch LCD TV. (I knew that plasma televisions have a reputation as energy hogs, so I didn’t even consider a plasma set. Plenty of other consumers are apparently making the same decision and most manufacturers have already exited the plasma TV market or announced plans to do so.)

Vizio's energy-efficient VO320E 32-inch LCD TV

Vizio's energy-efficient VO320E 32-inch LCD TV

After loads of research (much of it conducted with the help of the shopping website dealnews.com), I settled on the Vizio VO320E 32-inch LCD TDTV with Eco HD Performance. What drove my decision:

1) Performance – I had seen Vizio TVs in plenty of hotel rooms and figured that the sets must be at least somewhat durable for hotels to install them in rooms where they would get heavy usage. The technical specs (primarily contrast ratio, brightness, pixel response time and viewing angles) all looked pretty good.

2) Reputation – Other Vizio TVs had generally good reviews – or at least no worse reviews than many of the other brands in the market. Vizio also rose from obscurity to become the #1 selling brand of flat-panel HDTVs in North America in just a couple of years. I figured the company must be doing something right to see that kind of growth.

3) Price – Purchasing the TV through Dell’s website and using some coupon codes highlighted by dealnews.com, I was able to buy the TV for under $400 (including tax and free shipping). That seemed like an excellent price for a 32-inch LCD TV with the specs and reputation of this Vizio.

4) Eco Factors – The Vizio VO320E is branded as an “Eco HD” television. Vizio’s website says taht the VO320E consumes less energy than traditional HDTVs and exceeds current Energy Star Guidelines by at least 15%. The tech specs declare that the VO320E should use an average of 84.5 watts when operational and just 0.33 watts in stand-by mode. For the sake of comparison, I checked the posted specs for a variety of other 32-inch TVs:

Now I did not have a chance to verify power consumption on all these other TVs with my handy Kill-a-Watt meter, but I did test the Vizio VO320E and found that it came pretty close to its claimed power consumption, generally drawing around 86 or 87 watts of electricity when in use. Watching analog or digital channels did not seem to make any difference in terms of power consumption.

I also liked the fact that the Vizio VO320E was lighter than many of the other 32-inch TVs I considered. The 32-inch Sony Bravia, for example, weighs approximately 28 lbs when mounted on its base pedestal. For comparison, the VO320E on its stand weighs just 22.5 lbs – nearly 20% less. Less weight equals less raw materials, which should generally mean a smaller environmental footprint. (Note that this calculation is really just educated guesswork since Company A could theoretically extract more raw materials and produce more plastic in a more eco-friendly manner than Company B, but in the absence of details on extraction and production methods, weight seems like a reasonable factor to consider when calculating the environmental impact of household machines.

Conclusions:

  • Unfortunately, I no longer have the receipt for my old 20-inch CRT TV, but I’m fairly confident that the TV cost somewhere north of $500 when I purchased it back in late 2001 or early 2002. That makes the Vizio at least 20% less expensive for a television that weighs almost 70% less, is almost 80% thinner and provides a screen more than twice as large (as calculated by square centimeters) compared to the old TV. That certainly sounds like remarkable progress.
  • LCD manufacturers are making remarkable strides in terms of power consumption. As measured in my original Kill-a-Watt review last year, the 20-inch Sony CRT required approximately 70-watts of power consumption. The new Vizio delivers a much brighter, clearer and more than twice as large image with only 25% more power. And the amount of electricity needed to power a flat-panel TV will surely fall further if history is any guide. Consider Vizio’s VX32L LCD HDTV launched in 2007. That earlier generation Vizio LCD TV weighed 32 lbs (42% more than the VO320E) and had an average 180-watt power consumption! Take a minute to consider that fact – in just two years, Vizio lowered the power consumption on its 32-inch LCD TV sets more than 50%. If the trend continues, the latest generation 32-inch sets sold in 2011 will need only around 40 watts of power. A 2013 LCD TV will need only 20 watts of power and so forth. If we can achieve similar reductions in the energy needs of other household appliances, imagine the cumulative effect on the energy needs of the our nation and other nations around the world.

On the other hand…

  • It’s great to highlight the latest and most energy-efficient appliances and electronics, but do better/smaller gadgets solve our environmental problems or contribute to them? Consider that nothing was truly wrong with my old Sony CRT TV. The television still worked fine. In an age where television technology had stagnated, I (and millions of other consumers) would probably have kept our CRT televisions for another 10 or 20 years. My parents kept televisions for decades. The calculation is complicated by the fact that my new TV may be more efficient than my old TV (it certainly uses less energy than a 32-inch CRT), but in absolute terms it actually increased my energy consumption a little bit.
  • To extrapolate on this last point, Good Clean Tech recently ran a story about a French report suggesting that any efficiency gains in electronics have been outweighed by skyrocketing demand. The argument goes something like this – each new PC may be more energy efficient, but if falling prices and increasing functionality prompt a family to upgrade from one family computer to four computers (one for each famly member), energy usage will actually go up.

How can consumers who are concerned about the environment deal with this challenge? It sounds obvious, but I think all of us simply need to consider the environmental impact of each purchase decision. Are you purchasing a new television because it will significantly enhance your quality of life or simply because you want the latest toy? Manufacturers are experts at stoking consumer wants and getting us excited about the latest bells-and-whistles on their gadgets. But is it worth going into debt or stressing the environment simply to keep up with the Gateses?

In our household, we watch a lot of movies on DVD and the new TV has made a huge improvement in this entertainment experience for only a small increase in energy usage. It’s slim size has also made our one-bedroom NYC apartment seem a lot more spacious. So it’s had a major impact on our lives, but I can’t see upgrading to a larger or slimmer TV anytime soon unless the manufacturers had made another major improvement in energy efficiency – saying reducing the energy usage to just 20 watts without losing performance. (Of course, if efficiency improvements continue apace, we could reach that point in just another few years.)

Ultimately, I believe most people do want to reduce our impact on the environment. Simply by taking the time to consider environmental factors like energy consumption in our purchase decisions we can perhaps accelerate the move toward greater energy efficiency and lower overall energy usage.

Final thoughts – I haven’t spent much time talking specifically about the Vizio VO320E’s performance in this rather long review, but overall I’m extremely pleased. The picture is bright and beautiful – especially on digital HD channels. The menus are easy to use and the TV’s scan feature found us several channels we could not access before. I only have three quibbles:

1. The remote control started acting very wacky on the first day of usage. Essentially, it started communicating with my stereo (turning it on and off) and refusing to communicate with the TV. After 10 nerve-wracking minutes, I finally managed to get the TV and remote talking to each other again. I’m still not sure what went wrong, so I’m a bit anxious at the thought it might happen again.

2. The VO320E lacks a headphone jack. As mentioned, I share a one-bedroom apartment and office with my spouse. Sometimes one of us wants to watch TV while the other works. Our old TV made this easy with a headphone jack right on the front panel. The Vizio VO320E has no headphone jack. Apparently, Vizio’s consumer research indicates that most people don’t want this feature and don’t care about it, so Vizio eliminated it to save money. I do appreciate the good value of the Vizio set, but found the headset jack’s absence extremely annoying. Ultimately, I was able to find a cable (RCA input to female headphone jack) at J&R that allowed me to connect the headphones, but encountered another problem when the volume controls on the TV had no impact on the uncomfortably loud sound coming through the headset. Fortunately, I had a backup pair of headphones with an in-line volume control on the headset wire. With this ad-hoc setup, we are able to watch TV and use the headphones, but it isn’t very customer friendly.

3) The third quibble is the most annoying for me. Most television manufacturers insist upon putting obnoxiously large and prominent versions of their logo and name on the front of their television sets. Personally, I can’t imagine why they think that viewers want to be distracted from their shows by obtrusive set logos. I’d prefer a tiny logo/name in the same color as the rest of the set. In any case, Vizio has outdone their competitors in the Logo Distraction wars by making their logo glow – orange when the set is off and white when the TV is on. I have to admit that the soft orange glow doesn’t really bother me when the set is off. It wastes a little bit of power (which is annoying from an eco perspective), but I guess it also helps keep me from bumping into the set if I get out of bed in the middle of the night. On the other hand, having a glowing white logo below an active screen seems just totally idiotic.

I’m not the only one bothered by the glowing logo. Plenty of other online reviewers have complained and message boards are filled with Vizio owners asking if there’s any way to turn off the glowing logo. (Apparently there isn’t.)

In any case, there is an easy way to solve the problem – just go out to Staples or whichever office supply shop you like and buy some black card stock paper. Cut a little rectangle just large enough to completely cover the Vizio logo and tape it to the frame of the TV. If you pick your card stock carefully, the paper will be unobtrusive by day and invisible when watching the TV in a dark room. Again, this problem was not insurmountable, but forcing the customer to come up with an inventive solution to a unnecessary problem is just stupid from a design standpoint. At the very least, Vizio should give consumers a menu option to turn off the glowing logo. (I’d make the ‘off’ setting into the default option, but that’s just me…)

Would I recommend the Vizio VO320E to a friend?

Yes. I still think this is a great TV for the price with nice eco-friendly qualities and efficiencies. I’d like to see Vizio address some of the flaws listed above, but in the meantime I’ve got plenty of leftover black card stock if you need it.

Where to buy:

Vizio’s website directs shoppers to Walmart.com where the VO320E is on sale for $398.