The Four ‘R’s Of Sustainable Tech – Forbes

  • by

We’ve got our work cut out if we’re going to save the planet.

While global CO2 emissions might have fallen during 2020 due to the pandemic, they are highly correlated with the economic bounce-back, and are set to rise again in 2021. But CO2 is just one factor we need to consider in reaching sustainability. Our consumption of the earth’s mineral resources are another important factor which will lead to environmental catastophe.

Many of the organisations I speak with have started to consider their own profile as concerns digital waste – but what worries me is that policies being considered are limited to the basics, and given the scale of the climate emergency – perhaps it’s time for a no-holds-barred approach to sustianable tech.

This isn’t going to make for comfortable reading for most, but here’s how to think about the environmental footprint of tech, and some thoughts on what we can all do to improve our own contribution:

Recycle

This is the no-brainer option. When your gadget finally dies, make sure it goes to the appropriate place for recylcing.

MORE FOR YOU

But more than this – if you’re going to buy new – make sure you buy tech that is easy to recycle and not just that which has a high claimed content of recycled components. In the future, it might be possible to simply ‘dissolve’ devices once they’ve reached the end of their useful life-span – but until then consider whether the brand you are buying from is committed to designing their products to be easily recylcable.

In Europe, the WEEE Directive (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) means you can always return items that are no longer required back to the point of purchase so the onus is on the retailer to take the burdon of recycling (and which hopefully makes them think twice about selling hard-to-recycle products in the first place). Even so, ask questions about their recycle policy. It’s our responsibility not just to put the plastic in the right bin, but also to demand that it doesn’t still go to landfill after it’s been taken away.

Repair

Better than buying new is always to repair something you’ve already got. We’re totally comfortable with this idea in the non-tech world such as art, real-estate, and our own health. We are also pretty comfortable doing this with some technology products such as cars which we repair when damaged and maintain on a frequent cycle (usually annually), but how often do we think about repair and maintenance of computers, phones, or other devices that have some damage or are slightly worn?

A controversial topic in the technology industry currently is that of ‘serialisation’. Although much of the media attention on this practice has been directed at Apple, it is becoming widespread across the technology industry. Previously it would have been possible in the case of having a faulty device to simply find another faulty unit with a different problem and canabalise the two to make one good one. It’s a solution I’ve used many times successfully myself since my early days of running a computer repair business. Unfortunately, what some companies are now doing is when encoding the serial number of each component in a device when it is shipped and performing a ‘device integrity check’ when it’s turned on to see if any of these components has changed. An example might be an iPhone where the camera has failed. In the past, simply swapping the camera component from another iPhone with a faulty screen would have been an effective repair. Doing so now would render both devices useless.

So much of the obligation here is on device manufacturers to be more ethical with their design choices, but what opportunities are there for the rest of us to change our behaviour for the sake of the planet? Well, first – we should ensure our initial reaction is to repair and not replace, and secondly – we should seek out those devices which are most repairable when making initial purchase decisions. The ‘right to repair’ movement has really gained momentum in recent years, and the web is replete with resources dedicated to helping address this topic.

For the most part, repairing is something all of us with basic skills can do. Of course, there are some things which require the input of a professional – know your limits, and get help if you get stuck!

Reuse

The third level of tech sustainability is to reuse old devices. Simply put, when you need something – buy second-hand, and never new.

This is easier said than done, as it goes against all that we’ve been conditioned to through the advertising that we absorb continuously. Sure the new M1 powered MacBooks are beautiful to look at, and are a true triumph of engineering – but if the task in hand is email and web-browsing, then wouldn’t an early-2015 model do the same job?

I’ve personally found the allure of keeping old gadgets (and cars) alive very appealing. My day-to-day cellphone is a Nokia 2110 which hails from the same year that Nelson Mandela elected President of South Africa and Forrest Gump was released to cinemas (does anyone remember what a cinema was?). What’s great about using old feature-phones is it’s a super way of being really in touch of your own digital well-being. To be sure, most of the time when I travel I also carry an iPad mini, so I’m not totally unplugged – but having a brick in your pocket is the best way to minimise your screentime and maximise mindfullness.

I appreciate this strategy isn’t for everyone, but really – is there anything that an iPhone 7 doesn’t do that warrants an upgrade to the latest handset? Well, sure – of course – the latest iOS update might soon be out of reach – but this is really behaviour that we should be encouraging tech companies to abandon. The forced software upgrade cycle with no downgrade option is ‘sold’ to us as a necessary thing to keep us safe from hackers, but the reality is that it’s all part of the planned obsolescence strategy that has infected our technology industry more deeply than any state-sponsored cybersecurity ring.

What we need to do to break this cycle is somehow make old-tech cool. Rather than mock friends with yesterday’s model car, fridge, television or any other device – we should celebrate those who go out of their way to keep old tech alive until it mechanically fails or is truly beyond repair. My father-in-law continuously astounds me with the creativity and ingenuity he brings to this task – his home is full of circuit-boards of old devices that he plans to one-day restore. Hats off to you, Jurek!

Reduce

The final level of being sustainable with tech is to reduce. And believe me, this is the hardest. For years, I’ve fallen into the trap that more is better. More screens on my desktop PC, more RAM inside, more hard-drive space, more network storage (and more files to fill it), more G’s on my phone (and more apps to use them). Perhaps the easiest trap for me to fall foul of was simply more smart-devices across my home. There was a time where I proudly boasted to visiting friends and family about the eco-credentials of my smart plugs and smart bulbs. Alas, I think back to these times with the same sense of shame that an ex-smoker feels towards lighting up, or someone on a health-drive to their former diet.

Let’s start this example with smart-bulbs. An old-fashioned light-bulb that was rated at 60W used, well, 60W of power when turned on. And when switched off, used exactly nothing. Replacing this with a Philips Hue E27 for example means my energy consumption when turned on reduces to 9W, but my ‘switched-off’ power is 0.2W in standby. This means for every 2 days that the bulb is on standby, it’s using over an hour’s worth of switched-on power just sitting there and scanning for the signal to turn back on. Even the comparison against the old-fashioned incandescent example doesn’t really stack up. I had a reading light next to my sofa which I used perhaps once a week when curled up with a book late in the evening. The energy payback for this bulb on standby for the rest of the week was almost exactly the same as my old bulbs (which from memory must have been at least 10 years old and were still going strong). The moral of the story? If your light aint broke, don’t replace it with a smart one. To be sure, you’ll look good on your home’s energy rating when you come to sell or rent it – but smart bulbs are dumb – period.

Another example is the ubiquitous use of bluetooth headphones. OK – hands up, I was one of the first people to rush out and buy a pair of wireless earbuds when they first came out, but now I regret that decision. AirPods are unimaginably bad for the environment. Aside from the most simple point that a pair of wired headphones on a 3.5mm jack will last almost forever if well looked after, and use an infinitesimally small amount of electricty compared to their wireless descendents – it’s the mineral resources that go into their manufacture that are the problem. My AirPods are coming up to nearly 5 years old now, and I can barely survive a Zoom call without having to swap one back into the case for a quick recharge while listening to the other. And that’s on top of the fact that my original left-AirPod met an untimely demise once on the tracks of the Central Line. Over 100 million AirPods have been sold since their launch: if you’d like to visualise the impact this had made on the world, then Kate Crawford’s latest book “Atlas of AI” speaks well to the often forgotten supply-chain that goes into BigTech and our addiction to their products.

I’m not suggesting we should all give up going wireless, but we perhaps all need to be more mindful of the impact on the world when we do. Running a laptop with a modular battery (and unplugging it when sitting at a fixed-desk) could reduce energy consumption by 15%, aside from the obvious side-benefit of making it significantly easier to repair and recycle when it starts to wear down. Wireless headphones might be enormously convenient when out on a walk or doing sport, but are they really necessary in your home-office?

For the most-part I’ve focused on hardware so far in this article, but my parting thoughts on the subject are on the question of software. The MacBook I’m writing this on is running High Sierra, and for the most part – despite it’s age – performs more than adequately for my needs. My daily routine consists of using a browser (Firefox, of course), email client (Outlook), spreadsheet (Excel) and the Slack client – which has dramatically cut my reliance on email. Unfortunately, Slack have recently announced that they are dropping support for High Sierra, and I’ll have to upgrade MacOS in order to continue.

The effect of this design choice on their part means a slower laptop, higher energy consumption (the two factors are deeply intertwined), leading to higher stress on the components in my laptop susceptible to thermal forces (CPU, RAM, HDD, and the fans that keep them all cool) as well as the battery and charging components. Given the 12 million or so daily-active users – it’s likely that a significant number of these will be forced to make a hardware upgrade for the reasons above, or the act of updating the software will shorten the life of the otherwise perfectly servicable hardware. With all of Salesforce’s clever AI – I bet the folk there could easily model the impact on the planet that this policy is having. I bet they won’t though.

To be sure, Salesforce (the owners of Slack) aren’t alone in making this mistake. WhatsApp no longer functions on the iPhone 4 (an otherwise perfectly good smart-phone), and my Apple Watch (a series 2) is almost unusable since it’s most recent software update (although just about still manages to tell the time for a day without a recharge). While those involved in software engineering owe a huge responsibility to ensure their creations are code-optimised, offer longevity when it comes to backwards-compatibility, and are secure – it’s also on the rest of us to resist the forward march of ‘progress’ when updating our apps or adding new features or functionality.

Perhaps the biggest thing we could all insist on is breaking the link between security patches and feature upgrades. Well-written software should never need security patching. If the system was properly engineered from the get-go, it simply would be impossible to find an exploit. That said, most ‘security fixes’ are bundled with unnecessary feature upgrades, and if we simply stopped upgrading software for a time, developers would be forced to think more carefully about its design or face reputational harm when the inevitable hacks are promulgated.

If you’ve got this far through this piece – well done, you obviously care enough about sustainable tech to invest the time to explore the issues. And here’s your reward – a helpful summary that I hope you can take back into your workplace to drive change:

Summary checklist:

Reduce – aka smart bulbs are always dumb

1) Are we thinking clearly about code-optimisation, and the energy and hardware impact of code we produce or introduce into our organisation?

2) Are we being mindful of the appropiateness of devices for their situation given environmental factors (i.e. a wireless mouse for travelling, but not for a fixed workstation, bluetooth headphones for sport, but not for the home-office)?

Reuse– aka planned obsolescence has infected our technology industry more deeply than any state-sponsored cybersecurity ring

1) Can we keep old devices in service for longer? When they do come to the end of their productive life, can we find other purposes for them (such as the second-hand market, or education/ charitable purposes)?

2) Do we always need to buy new? Would a second-hand device solve the problem in hand adequately?

Repair– aka it’s not a right-to-repair, it should be a requirement

1) Are we maintaining devices that are in service on a regular basis (like cleaning the dust out of fans etc)? Do we have a repair-first culture?

2) When buying replacements – do we go out of our way to buy devices that have been designed with repairability in mind?

Recycle– aka just because it’s in the right bin, doesn’t mean it isn’t going to landfill anyway

1) Are we thinking about the end-of-life at the start of our investment in technology? Are we factoring in the recyclability of devices when we start our procurement process?

2) Are we sure the that the disposal agent (i.e. the retailer we are returning the device to) is really being proactive when it comes to their recycling obligations – and committed to ensuring recycling is actually being carried out (and not simply theoretically possible)?