December 18, 2013
by The New York Times

LONDON — From solar-powered Christmas lights and cellphone chargers to smart home thermostats, there are plenty of gifts available for technology lovers interested in saving energy.

And since upgrading your favorite device less frequently might be the best conservation measure, some designers, companies and environmentalists are also looking for ways to ensure that more old electronics are reused or recycled, hoping to reduce the environmental impact of the gadgets that are so central to modern life.

That includes encouraging technology manufacturers to design products so that their most valuable components can be retrieved easily when their useful life is over.

“It’s really important as the number of these devices multiplies geometrically that we figure out ways that these aren’t just products that are created out of an immense amount of diverse resources and then are just thrown out a few years later,” said Sarah O’Brien, spokeswoman for the Green Electronics Council, in Portland, Ore.

That is a challenge for the personal technology industry, whose profitability is based on selling more devices each year, many of them during the holiday season, and convincing people to replace them frequently.

Whether that model can ever become sustainable “is the elephant in the room, it’s the big question,” Ms. O’Brien said.

Her group manages EPEAT, an environmental rating system for computers and other electronics that lets people check how well manufacturers have complied with criteria that include the removal of toxins and making devices easier to recycle. Greenpeace has a similar list.

In Britain, the Waste and Resources Action Program, or WRAP, is working with big retailers to encourage them to expand trade-in and resale options, so that people can get credit for returning a used phone, tablet, laptop or television, which the company could then refurbish and resell, said Gerrard Fisher, WRAP’s special adviser for electrical and electronic products.

Some manufacturers and stores already offer trade-in rebates, but they are not widely used, Mr. Fisher said.

“We see our goal as trying to get that to be a mainstream activity, so as a consumer, if you fancy upgrading your device, you start thinking, ‘What can I get for my old one?"’ he said.

WRAP research found that Britons reacted positively to the ideas of trading in and buying used, as long as the refurbished devices were sold by a trusted company, he said.

“Retail is a one-way operation at the moment,” he said. “We think there’s a great business case for making it two-way.” Devices a year or so old are likely to find eager buyers domestically, while older ones could be sold in emerging markets, he said.

“A lot of those products are working perfectly well; they may not be top speed, but not everyone needs top speed,” Mr. Fisher said.

Rick Goss, senior vice president at the Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington trade group representing many major brands, said all of its members had strong takeback, recycling and refurbishment programs, and many had adjusted product designs to make it easier to retrieve the materials inside, he said.

Critics of frequent upgrading, Mr. Goss said, failed to note the strong existing market in used electronics. “Devices go through two, three, four, five owners before they’re put into the recycling stream,” he said.

Nonetheless, the logistics of collecting old devices for recycling, particularly large ones, can be difficult, he said, and the burden of doing so should be shared by retailers, distributors and government, not just manufacturers.

A Dutch designer, Dave Hakkens, has a more radical approach to reducing waste. His video about Phonebloks, a blueprint for a mobile phone made up of pieces that can be easily taken out and replaced, captured attention on YouTube this autumn. He has now teamed up with Motorola, which was working on a similar idea.

In Mr. Hakkens’s vision, people would be able to buy a preassembled phone and upgrade parts when necessary, or customize their own phone from the start, for example by choosing an extra-large battery, a sharper camera or a quicker processor, depending on their preferences.

People could keep up with technological change by getting better components as they became available, he said.

“Instead of throwing away 100 percent of your phone every two years, you might throw away 5 percent because that’s the part you want to upgrade,” he said.

Mr. Hakkens said he hoped to see a module developer’s kit released this winter, so that people could start designing parts for the phone. It will probably be about two years before consumers are able to buy Phonebloks, he said.

Improving recyclability is key to making the sector greener, said Ms. O’Brien, and it is an important part of the EPEAT ratings. Manufacturers should make devices that are easier to disassemble so that the valuable metals and other materials inside can be retrieved more easily, she said.

Many discarded electronics end up in China, Vietnam, Ghana, Pakistan and Nigeria, where crude recycling processes expose workers to toxic chemicals and pollutes the environment, said Tom Dowdall, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace in Amsterdam.

“Just looking at the amount of energy and metal and resources, plastics, that goes into these electronics, that’s a huge amount of embedded environmental impact,” he said.

It is not all about purchasing less, though. Personal technology can have a positive environmental impact, with apps available to help manage home energy use, find food in supermarkets from sustainable sources, and save gasoline while driving, among other green goals.

The offerings this holiday season range from the frivolous to the down-to-earth, and include solar-powered Christmas lights and chargers for small devices, both of whose novelty value may outweigh their actual impact.

One popular device is the Nest, a thermostat that learns your schedule and adjusts a home’s heat and air-conditioning accordingly. It can also be controlled remotely, from a smartphone.

“I think I might have one under my tree, from my husband,” said Catherine Wolfram, co-director of the Energy Institute of the Haas School of Business, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Energy geeks may also enjoy the Kill A Watt, which can measure the power used by individual devices, she said.

The Wattson Solar Plus energy monitor, for those who generate electricity at home, tracks how much power they are producing and using, and can be programmed to turn on appliances like a washing machine when there is a surplus of energy, said Nigel Berman, founder of Nigel’s Eco Store, an online retailer based near Brighton, England.

The Chop Cloc, he said, turns a home’s heating system off for a short time every hour, and timers can shut down power to a plugged-in device when its battery is full, avoiding the waste of charging it all night. The Ecobutton is quick way of putting a computer into energy-saving sleep mode.

Mr. Goss, of the technology trade association, said the industry’s largest manufacturers “actually compete against one another in the marketplace on sustainability.”

Mr. Dowdall, of Greenpeace, agreed that there had been significant progress, citing the efforts of companies like Google, Facebook and Apple to convert their power-hungry data centers to renewable energy sources. He said Apple also deserved credit for removing many toxic substances from its products and for buying devices back from consumers.

Still, he said, “the way the business is structured is not ultimately sustainable.”

“Rather than just little sustainability things on the side for just a small portion of their audience, they need to be thinking about how do we offer this to everyone, so its something that happens across the board,” he said.