I volunteered this year, on behalf of the O2 NYC, Green Options and my firm J. Ottman Consulting, at the inaugural Greener Gadgets conference on Friday, February 1st. On this raining day in midtown Manhattan I was happy to be inside the McGraw-Hill Conference Center on 49th Street. The conference was presented by research firm Marc Alt & Partners and design blog Inhabitat and brought out quite the group of designers, engineers, students, press and environmentalists. The speakers included the Head of Environment for North America at Nokia, Director of Product Take Back and Recycling at HP, and the Director of Corporate Environment, Safety, and Health at Sony, just to name a few.
I arrived at the conference about 9:30 am and was happy to notice as I walked in the doors, three disposal cans labeled “Waste, Recycling and Compost” and someone monitoring them. After I grabbed a stiff cup of coffee, in a mug as opposed to a paper cup, and checked my coat, I picked up my volunteer badge and headed in to hear the opening keynote speech. This speech, by artist and digital photographer Chris Jordan, was my absolute favorite of the day and I feel served to kick start the conference with the correct perspective of American mass consumption (something we all need in large daily doses).
Chris showed pictures—like the one above— from his “Intolerable Beauty” portfolio in which he photographed things such as paper cups, plastic bottles, reams of paper, and cell phones in small quantities and then changed the arrangements many times and used Photoshop to extrapolate these quantities into the hundreds of thousands to exhibit in one picture the amount we consume on a daily or even hourly basis. His images are rich, textured and sobering. He ended his speech explaining his belief that the “green” movement had not hit critical mass and that the electronics industry could do for the “green” movement what Michael Jordan did for long baggy basketball shorts in the 90s: Make it cool.
The design keynote was by the Chief Technology Officer of One Laptop Per Child (more on this later) and the founder and president of Pixel Qi. There were three panel discussions during the day on the following topics: Electronics Materials & Lifecycle, Electronics & Energy Efficiency, and New Forms of Mobile Renewable Energy.
During lunch I took my perch in the exhibit room and assumed my volunteer duties of, most appropriately, monitoring the disposal cans. I was honestly surprised with how many people still managed to get by me and throw their compostable cups in the “waste” bin as opposed to the “compostable” bin. Trust me, the ones I caught I scolded to the best of my ability. Anyway, being in the exhibit room afforded me the opportunity to scope out some bitchin’ new products. I particularly liked the solar products from Solio and the solar powered backpacks from Voltaic. Here is a video about a wind powered charger from MINIWIZ…
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/FOfF4egYskg" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
…and another video about the conference:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/1L7xsHRYpiM" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
All in all it was a good day. I was glad to see the many innovations and to hear representatives from Intel, Nokia, Phillips, HP and the EPEAT discuss the problems with e-waste and the possibilities of new business models like electronics leasing. I think there was a strong undertone of over-consumption at this conference and I was happy to see the panel members from the largest manufacturers show their awareness and concern. My favorite moment of the day came when Colin Beavan, author of the blog www.noimpactman.com, asked the panel members during the Electronics & Energy Efficiency discussion if they were designing “green” products in order to sell more or if they were trying to design green products to help curb the problems of over consumption and waste (in so many words). His question garnered applause from the audience; the answers from the panelists were vague.
I heard and saw very positive things at this first Greener Gadgets conference. Sony talked about their “Full Producer Responsibility Program, their partnership with waste management and their goal for 95% of the U.S. population to have electronics drop off points, at most 20 miles from their homes. HP talked about the problem of reverse logistics and how they have successfully recycled and refilled 500 million ink cartridges, and Intel claimed to be the largest purchaser among its competitors of solar energy. These companies are no doubt taking steps toward energy efficiency and “green” innovation, and I am happy I got to hear about these initiatives firsthand from the people with the most influence—but I’m still skeptical. The rub remains: Their business models are built on selling new and improved products and initiatives by consumer electronics manufacturers on energy efficiency and recycling are still in the awkward stages in the U.S. Even if the U.S. was flawless in recapturing electronics products and reusing the materials, we still have to think about the growing demand for these products in developing countries where there is no infrastructure for recycling. Where will products sold to these countries go when they reach the end of their useful life?
I welcome your thoughts.
I’m hopeful, but skeptical.