Are greener gadgets even possible?

David Biello, Scientific American
The urge to buy the latest gadget and to reform environmental misbehavior may be the twin pillars of 21st century American youth culture, but can the two ever be reconciled? Apple, Dell, Intel, Nokia and others—companies with an array of “green” initiatives and (more) environmentally friendly products—sure hope so. But wind power kite scientist and serial inventor Saul Griffith is skeptical, according to his keynote address at the Greener Gadgets conference in New York City this past Friday.

Griffith, the intellectual force behind ( where you can calculate the energy use of your lifestyle), has another term for the gadget-obsessed, himself included: “planet f&*kers.” A detailed analysis of the energy required to produce everything from his daily glass of wine to his iPhone revealed that Griffiths requires some 25,000 watts of energy every day, or nearly twice that of the average American (who is already consuming at least six times as much as the average person in China and more than 20 times as much as the average Indian citizen).

A big part of that is all that time spent on the computer. As Stephen Harper, Intel’s global director of environment and energy policy, put it: “As the chips get smaller and denser, we end up with a laptop with the heat output of a nuclear power plant.” The chipmaker hopes to get around that by emphasizing energy efficiency over speed. But the fact remains that computers are becoming ever more energy hungry.

Software is at least partially to blame. Instead of relying on “good enough” principles, as designer Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign, a San Francisco product design firm, noted at the confab, software makers have allowed their programs to expand to employ every bit of available computing power—and helped drive a race to bigger, faster, more powerful chips.
(2 March 2009)

Designing a Zero-Waste City: A Visit to the San Francisco Dump

Adele Peters with Julia Levitt, WorldChanging
On February 20, I had the opportunity to tour the San Francisco city dump, a facility run by Norcal Waste Systems. The tour was part of Compostmodern 09, a conference sponsored by AIGA, a professional association for designers.

It might seem strange to have a group of creative types clamoring to learn from the city dump, but there are numerous good reasons why their thinking is important to the waste management process. As we’ve often pointed out here on Worldchanging, getting to zero waste isn’t simply a question of how we deal with the garbage we’ve got. Much more important is how we handle things upstream, at the point where we design the stuff and systems that fill our lives. If we can design waste out of the picture, we save not only the final product that gets tossed in the trash, but also the materials, time and energy required to get it there.

Bob Besso, Waste Reduction Manager, started out by showing the audience of graphic designers several examples of packages that can’t be recycled because of the combination of materials. He made a strong point about why it’s important for designers to look at how any product – including packaging – will be handled, used and disposed of, and to choose materials accordingly. “One of the messages we need to get out to designers is to say, look, you have no right to put a product like that into the marketplace and force someone else to deal with it,” Besso said.

He also noted the problems that the waste facility faces when recyclable materials are poorly marked. Compostable corn-based plastic (also known as PLA), is increasingly popular among businesses who want to improve their ecological footprint. But it actually causes a serious problem for sorters when it isn’t clearly marked. It looks just like regular clear plastic, and if there’s any doubt, it will end up being tossed out of the compostable pile. And because its composition is different from conventional plastic, PLA becomes a contaminant when uninformed users toss it in the recycling bin.
(3 March 2009)

Ethical Man’s guide to making a fortune in a low-carbon world

Justin Rowlatt, BBC news
Making a fortune is simple. All you need to do is find something worthless and give it value.

I met a man this week who has done just that. He’s taken something we all throw away and found a process that converts it into something useful.

He is part of a great American tradition because finding ways to add value to things is what business is all about and America has always been good at business.
(28 February 2009)