Sustainable Tech and Products: What You Can Do

Jul 2, 2021 Ian Darwin
Improve the world by buying and using sustainable products.

Tech is "sustainable" if it can be "sustained" - kept running - for a long time. If you have to replace your smartphone or your Chromebook every 2-3 years because the manufacturer stops issuing security updates (you daren’t use it in public if the "security update" is more than a month or two old), that’s not sustainable.

Stuff in general is "sustainable" if it can be manufactured, used, and then either reused or recycled, or if its processing reduces the resources that were previously consumed.

In one sense I’ve always been about sustainability. My second car was a used Mazda R100, little-known but actually the first production car in history powered by a Wankel rotary engine. It had other pioneering features, like a sophisticated pollution control system. I saved it from the junk yard, buying it cheaply because the rotor seals (analogous to piston rings on a conventional gasoline engine) were shot, and I think the dealer had to pull the engine out to replace those. If I recall correctly, I paid more for the repair than I had for the car.

I drove the thing for a year or so. One morning the car made a horrible new screeching sound when I tried to start it. Quick examination under the hood showed that one of the pulleys connected to a large V-belt had ceased to operate. My dad was a jack-of-all-trades do-it-yourselfer (DIY) and a Civil Engineeer. Partly from him, I had inherited enough mechanical skills to dismount what turned out to be the "A.I.R." pump from the pollution control system. Upon dismantling that, I found that it had rotors/gaskets, rather like the ones inside the engine, but made of plastic. One had broken and jammed sideways, preventing the pump from turning. I phoned the Mazda dealer in Toronto, and asked him how much to replace these gaskets. He said, quite seriously, "Oh, we don’t replace those. We just replace the whole pump." I guess sustainability was not a thing back then. He quoted me a price of $300 just for the part (in 1970’s dollars; that would be about a kilobuck today). I laughed and hung up. The same $300 instead bought me a Unimat, a miniature machine shop-in-a-box. I then spent ONE DOLLAR on a bakelite plastic box which I cut up, and used the Unimat to mill down the sides into replacement rotor gaskets. These worked for years until I retired the car.

Decades later, I still have the Unimat. And it still works, a testament to 1970’s quality Austrian engineering and manufacturing.

Of course, these days, when I do have to drive, I drive an electric car. The science says these are way better, despite what the haters say. See also my manifesto on renewable energy.

Modularity

Making a piece of gear "modular" seems to be one of the primary paths to sustainability - "replace the part, not the whole". This philosophy is shared by the Teracube 2e phone and the Framework laptop that was reviewed here (links below). The road to modularity is, alas, littered with corpses. Cue the music to a popular American folk hymn: "Project Ara’s body lies a mould’ring in the grave…​" The most aggressive "modular phone" plan was Google’s Project Ara. Announced amid some fanfare, Ara died slowly and quietly, choked off for many and complex reasons. You might think that "If Google couldn’t do it, nobody can." But I disagree. I suspect it was a distraction for Google, and their unwillingness to offend the big phone carriers - part of whose cash cow consists of selling supersized, overpriced, disposable phones to consumers - was too big a risk. The teams at FairPhone, Teracube and Framework, on the other hand, have nothing to distract them but the "video game" of answering posts on their community site, and have no fear of offending the big laptop manufacturers; heck, they’re taking those guys on head first! Think Charlie Brown running with a football head-on into the Buccs offense. But he’s small and light and agile enough to get through the cracks in their line!

SmartPhones

Megatons of electronic waste go into landfills every year, because phone makers need you to scrap a perfectly viable phone, so they can sell you a new one, every few years. They do this both by witholding software "security updates", and by making new phones with more new frilly features every year. Some companies are bucking this trend.

  • Teracube 2e Website (ships worldwide) - My review Field-repairable, replacement parts available, made with recycled materials, etc.

  • Fairphone website (Europe only). Same idea (and been in production longer).

Laptop and Desktop Computers

  • In general, when a computer is outgrown by the continuous bloating of a mainstream operating system, you can switch to a system like OpenBSD or Linux which contain far less bloat and will run on many or most older laptop or desktop PCs.

  • My current laptop is starting to show its age, with the odd random crash. I am replacing it soon with this Frameworks Laptop. To see why, check out my review. Laptop is field repairable, upgradable, modular, designed for maintenance. Even available in semi-kit form(!).

  • System76 has a line of laptops and desktops for which they provide service manuals and (presumably) sell repair/upgrade parts.

  • iameco ("I am eco") has a line of laptops with the body made of wood.

  • Traditional maker Dell Computer claims to have a line of sustainable laptops. I know nothing about these, but I’m sceptical.

  • For Desktop Computers, I don’t know of any major entries here. My own choice is to keep desktop computers alive as long as possible. They are mostly made from standard, interchangeable components, so you can replace just the power supply, or upgrade the motherboard.

  • Speeding up any computer without buying a new one:

    • Add or upgrade the main memory ("RAM"), up to the maximum supported by the mainboard you have.

    • Upgrade the CPU to a faster one if it becomes available in the same "socket",

    • Add or upgrade the main memory ("RAM")

    • Replace hard disks with SSDs (solid state disks) that give a big performance improvement.

    • On some operating systems, periodic "disk defragmentation" improves performance.

    • Removing old unused software, particulary software that runs a "starter" whether you’re using it or not.

Kick the battery habit

Gazillions of alkaline battery cells from flashlights, radios, toys, etc., wind up in landfill each year. This doesn’t have to happen:

Other Companies that live and breathe "sustainable"

  • Baratza coffee grinders offer freely-downloadble repair guides and sell a perfect pantheon of parts for past and current models.

Personal Purchases

  • Do you really need that new gadget yesterday? If not, don’t order it from Amazon, but from a local supplier. Stop helping Amazon own the world. Keep local business alive.

  • Use a travel mug instead of a "disposible" cup for your take-out cuppa (pandemic permitting). The cups used by most fast-food chains are impossible to recycle as they are made of cardboard fused with plastic. So they wind up in landfills forever. I once long ago saved all the disposible coffee cups I used. One day I looked up and saw that the stack had grown to the height of my office cubicle~ I bought a travel mug the same day, and have used one ever since. Starbucks is pioneering returnable cups.

  • Change Toothpaste eliminates excess packaging and the inefficiency of shipping water around; their product is a chewable toothpaste that works better than that makes it sound.

Interesting New Recycling Projects

Companies that Repair/Repurpose used equipment

Supporting Old Tech

There are lots of companies/projects that provide updated support for hardware that is abandoned by the original vendor. Just a few examples:

  • LineageOS (formerly CyanogenMod) provides free downloads of Android for popular smartphones that are no longer supported by their vendors.

  • VueScan supports many old scanners, both film and flatbed. Costs US$110 for the version that supports both types; free download trial; quite reasonable.

  • As mentioned above, BSD and Linux operating systems make older PCs usable again, even when Microsoft declares them "unsupported". This is particularly a problem with Windows 11, which apparently won’t even run on some currently-sold Microsoft hardware!

Re-using used stuff saves (money and the environment)

Got more ideas on sustainability? Let me know.