Hm. Where are all the gadgets at the Greener Gadgets conference, a one-day acronym festival — EPEAT, ROHS, LCA, anyone? — covering topics from e-waste recycling to the economic benefits of going green. I was expecting to see cell phones crafted of discarded water bottles or a smog-powered BlackBerry. At least they’ve got the photovoltaic backpacks.
Mostly, the exhibitors’ hall and panels include an odd amalgam of entrepreneurs and industry analysts, makers and regulators, who are far less focused on the gadget itself than on where it comes from and where it goes on its cradle-to-cradle journey through the world. “We need to focus on the system, and not just on the gadget,” said Intel’s Director of Environment and Energy Policy Stephen Harper.
They’re just as focused on where the gadget goes to die, an integral part of said system. As keynote speaker Saul Griffith, co-founder of Squid Labs and Makani Power, told us, “There’s no ‘away’ to throw something anymore — we know where everything goes.”
Griffith’s message was clear: narrowly focusing on one ingredient of “going green” means missing the larger environmental picture. A carbon footprint calculation alone is not enough. It’s not nearly enough. What about toxins released into the environment? What about water consumption, or waste? Energy consumption? If we nail it on recycling but not on environmental hazards, for instance, we release “a litany of horrors.” And the term he likes to throw around for those of us releasing such a litany: planet fuckers. (Many corporate sustainability consultants seemed to jovially adopt the epithet over the course of the day).
Each of those ingredients can in fact be measured (“and the fact that they can should scare the bejesus out of you,” said Griffiths), and must be measured for gadgets to get greener. Which is why some of the most important participants here make perhaps the least sexy product: software.
PlanetMetrics, for instance, is a pioneer in the field of CIM, in case you need another notch on your acronym tool belt — carbon information management. Someday, companies might be able to plug data into their matrix and get a hard number that shows where they’re excelling and where they’re lagging behind on environmental issues, and how much it might cost them to catch up. “The ability for companies to measure their products, it’s not very good,” said PlanetMetrics’ co-founder Aaron Dallek. It sounds like this is what the gadget industry is waiting for: a tool for introspection of sorts. The auto industry has miles per gallon or emissions, concrete ways to take their environmental temperature.
Until the consumer electronics industry gets a similar standard, a few folks here today should be able to help them. EIATRACK is a web clearinghouse of international environmental regulations, to help lawyers, integrators, and manufacturers wade through the morass of rules that differ between countries (the cynical view is that it’s a site to help companies get around the regulations, but the PR folks assured me that the regulations are far too stringent now to defy).
Another site, Ecolect.net, gathers sustainable materials for industry folks to peruse like Solanyl BP, a recycled plastic that can help create everything from aquaculture to golf tees, or (my favorite) sheep poo paper. I think you can guess what it’s made from. Looks and feels just like paper from trees!
I myself am fond of the green surge protector, an easy, nifty way to help us cut down on energy waste from standby power: separate sections for your cell phone charger and other things that only need to operate at select times. If only it were made out of Solanyl and could biodegrade into electronic manure that became paper.
One thing not so easily discussed at a conference like this is that the greenest thing one can do is buy less, and thus the greenest thing the consumer electronics industry can do is make products that last, reversing the sinister business of planned obsolescence. Perhaps that’ll be on the docket next year.