5 Ways to Make Consumer Electronics Green, or Better Yet, Obsolete


Photo via adselwood via Flickr CC

It's a common complaint that technology advances so rapidly, new products hitting the shelves are outdated the second they arrive there. Before we even purchase a device, new versions and varied models are under production. Consumers are easily overwhelmed and confused with the differences in manufacturers' crowded product lines. We're especially experiencing that now in the realm of netbooks and smart phones, but it's true for all consumer devices. However, we also see that consumer whim has a lot of influence - perhaps all the influence - over how manufacturers introduce and carry on release of new gadgets. So, how do we exercise that clout to get manufacturers serious about creating heirloom devices that can adapt to new technology without all of the e-waste? Or is it even possible?Can Gadgets Keep Up With Technology?
We might think that technology advances too rapidly for gadgets to really keep up. In the case of e-readers, this may be true. The screen technology is too new and improving too fast to release a device that can be expected to be top of the line in even a year. Suppose the screens could be swapped out in current devices; the design of the entire product itself is slated for some serious changes, rendering a screen swap a very ho-hum upgrade. Does it have to be this way though?

At Some Point, New Models Should Be Simply Upgrades
Exactly how small, how fast, how thin, how interactive can our products possibly get and still be useful? For instance, cell phone styles have changed quite a lot over the last ten years, but not to the point where they're unrecognizable - save perhaps the iPhone and its touchscreen. Even with touchscreen technology, it is possible to create cell phones now that people can be happy with in another ten years, with just changing software and some hardware components as needed, but not the whole device.

How can we make that a universal truth, and spare the massive amount of materials and energy that goes into creating, recovering, and recycling products, and the massive environmental footprint of the majority of products that end up in landfills or toxic e-waste dumps?

When there is no "away," how do we make what we have stick around, even in the face of improvements? Here are five options to mull over.

1. Be Picky Purchasers

One of our favorite gadget websites that has hit our radars lately is Last Year's Model, a site that lets geeks say why they're sticking with their old gadgets rather than buy the latest version of the same thing.

We know we can expect regular releases of new gadgets, but typically the new releases aren't that different from old versions. Often they're changes that only enthusiasts would really notice or care about. The latest iPhone 3G S is a perfect example, where the new model has only minute changes over the previous version (Apple fans, you have permission to say "Nuh uh!!" here, but the argument sticks).

So we need to be pickier about our purchases, ask tougher questions when buying, and require that if a manufacturer is going to release something new and expect us to oogle it, it'd better be leaps and bounds better than what's already available. In other words, it'd better be an honestly new product, and it'd better be repairable and upgradeable.

© Jaymi Heimbuch
Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

2. Resurrect Repair Skills


We're not going to sit here and lament some bye-gone era of self-sufficiency. Even the most cursory glance at the guts of a gadget is enough to know why people would prefer to just toss a device than try to understand what is broken and how to fix it. But what we do want to do is bring back the mindset that when you own something, it's yours, and it's within your ability to keep it running for however long you care to keep it running.

While it looks complicated, most electronics repair skills are within each of our grasps. As Maker Faire recently highlighted, if you can't open it, you don't own it. And who wants to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars on a product they're essentially borrowing until one tiny, fixable part breaks?

We think it's a better idea to bring back the mentality that we have the ability to make repairs, upgrades and modifications until our heart's content - as long as we choose products that are repairable and not engineered for disposability. There are even ways to modify disposable gadgets into permanent ones, effectively reversing the trend of disposability.

3. Forecast the Future of Gadgets and our Needs

Why are we leaving it up to manufacturers to dream up, design, and distribute the devices we consume? Isn't that our job? It's true that so often we don't know what we need until someone else hands it to us - but then does that qualify as a need? We can have a lot of fun debating this idea, but still, it's within our capable hands to predict and create the future of our technology.

First it takes some analysis of our needs. Look at the devices you own. And look at what features on each device you use regularly. Look at which you don't, and wouldn't even miss if it weren't there. Which devices are usually shoved in a drawer and rarely used, or perhaps used just once, and likely never again? Where can you ditch extra gadgets and simplify?

When we really stop to think about these things, it becomes apparent that by deciding for ourselves what we really want and need, we can get product manufacturers to make only those things, and make those things of a very high quality. After all, human needs really don't change a whole heck of a lot - we're only able to work x fast, and do x things at once. We don't have to live without cool, advancing technology, we just have to assess what it is we really want and need (a healthy planet with a future takes high priority in there as well...) and model our technology and devices after that.


Phone handset hacked as a bluetooth device. Photo via mightyohm via Flickr CC

4. Change the Source of the Cool Factor


We have to admit, much of our consumerism stems from wanting to have the coolest thing. So what if we change where the cool factor stems from? Rather than simply having the latest device and barely knowing how to use a fraction of its features, what if we shifted mindsets and decide it's way cooler when someone has a 5-year-old cell phone that they've hacked and modified to do essentially all the things most of us do on our cell phones that we purchased six months ago?

The cool factor can come from, yes, being a geek. Or rather, from being a highly capable and innovative person. There are loads of examples shown off on TreeHugger when gadgeteers have hacked away and created something a bit greener and more useful out of their devices and know-how, and have earned cool cred, and even won competitions.

When resources to make new products are scarce, the geek - er, highly capable and innovative person - shall inherit the earth. Let's start now, before we have to start mining landfills or untouched landscapes for minerals to make new junk.


OLPCs waiting to be part of a lending library. Photo via curiouslee via Flickr CC

5. Switch From Consuming Products to Consuming Services


What if we were to get away from device consumption altogether? The idea is being batted around more often now. It was addressed at ETech by Lane Becker and Thor Muller when they talked about ending obsolescence through a post-consumer economy. It has also been hashed out further by Gavin Starks, who has come up with the idea of "delta 10":

We need to all make "powers of ten" changes to our lives, from the CO2 intensity of our power production, to the way we relate to products and services. So, to my latest call to action... Turn every product into a service for 10 people.

elta 1 = 10% efficiency increase (10% reduction in materials, increase in energy efficiency, or energy consumption through re-use)
...
delta 9 = 90% efficiency increase (90% reduction in materials, increase in energy efficiency, or energy consumption through re-use)

delta 10 = The process is rendered wholly and demonstrably sustainable through the effective and credible management of resources (e.g. renewable energy, managed forestry, effective waste management, and cradle-to-crade/biomimetics).

A delta 10 means you have created an environmentally-intelligent service, not a product.

What, other than human desire to own things, is keeping us from shifting to this low-carbon, low-footprint, the-service-is-more-important-than-the-thing-itself way of life? After all, 89% of you are using the library more now - and a library is the bare bones of what we're talking about here. As long as we're getting accomplished what we want to get accomplished, perhaps it's not the product - and its attached carbon footprint - that matters so much.

More on Greener Consumer Electronics
CES2009: Greenpeace Speaks Up About Green Gadgets
Energy Usage Increases Despite Efficiency Efforts
Consumer Electronics Report: Industry is Shrinking, Shrinking, Shrinking

Tags: Consumerism | Electronics | Gadgets | Zero Waste