Greener Gadgets 2010: All About Energy Efficiency

Greener Gadgets 2010: All About Energy Efficiency

Cambria Bold
Feb 26, 2010

Yesterday we attended the Greener Gadgets 2010 conference in New York (which you know if you follow us on Twitter!) The name of the game this year at the conference was energy efficiency at home, with discussions on energy meters, monitors, controllers and building upgrades that can help us follow and reduce our energy consumption. There was also, of course, the annual Greener Gadgets Design Competition, and we'll tell you the winner!

This annual conference is a great opportunity to hear inspirational speakers and panelists discuss the current state of our gadgets and how we can continually work to make them greener and more environmentally-friendly—from their design conception and manufacturing and production processes to companies' take-back programs and the products' disassemble capabilities. The conference opened with a keynote presentation by design superstar Yves Behar, founder of Fuseproject, who urged designers and consumers to "put the sexy back in green." Designing products with sustainability in mind in shouldn't be a constraint; rather, sustainability should be "the sexiest tool in the designer's toolbox." We should aim to design products that are desired and needed around the world— people should want to buy them not simply because they're the ethical choice, but because they're the best and the most beautiful choice.

The morning continued with a panel discussion on sustainable design strategies for the home. There were a few key highlights from this discussion:

  • Sarah Krasley (Industry Manager of Sustainability at Autodesk) stressed the importance of democratizing sustainability for users. Did you know that 80% of the environmental impact is decided in the concept design? If designers can get on board with this, it'll go a long way towards reducing the overall impact our products have on the environment. She also called for a ratings system for products, like LEED for homes or ENERGY STAR, which we think is a great idea. (There is a ratings system in place for electronics, actually, which we learned later. It's called EPEAT, and Amazon has now started listing electronics according to their EPEAT rating of either bronze, silver, or gold.)
  • Ellen Honigstock (LEED AP) said that 95% of the buildings that will exist in 2030 have already been built; therefore, our focus should really be on retrofitting and upgrading those buildings to meet new energy standards, such as upgrading heating systems, lighting, and insulation. Additionally, if a new home/building is constructed, it should be law that it's an ENERGY STAR home.
  • Kimberly Lancaster (founder of Caster Communications, a public service relations firm specializing in consumer electronics, clean tech and sustainable design) said that companies should be working to make their legacy products last longer. (The concept of "heirloom design" or design that is intended to last generations.)

The afternoon sessions included an interview with Jeff Omelchuck (founder of the Green Electronics Council), who gave us more information about EPEAT, and spoke about the biggest disagreements that environmental advocates and manufacturers face when trying to develop new environmental product standards. Manufacturers are concerned with primarily two things:

  • They need practical alternatives. Yes, it's great in theory if you can eat your computer at the end of its life cycle, but how realistic is that really? There needs to be a standard that can actually be met, that's actually realistic, and advocates and manufacturers often come to an impasse on this issue.
  • The truth is that manufacturers listen to the market. If there's a demand for it, they'll do it. This is very important! It's easy to claim that the greenest thing to do is to live with what you have, to not buy new things. But if we don't buy these things, the demand for them is never going to go up, and the manufacturers and companies are never going to make a permanent shift to newer, greener products and technologies.

A presentation on ANDREA

Afternoon Gadget Talk sessions featured a presentation on ANDREA, a plant-based natural air purifier, and on, an online open source project about where things come from. It's a platform for researching, optimizing and sharing the supply chains behind a number of everyday products. Users can make their own, or comment and edit on other supply chains. The truth is we know so little about the carbon footprint of our products, and there's really no good reason for that.

A map of iPod's supply chain

The Sustainable Show-Off gave 10 minutes to three different companies to highlight their newest eco gadgets. ThinkEco presented the Modlet ("modern outlet"), a super smart plug. Appliances plugged into the Modlet can be controlled from a web application, allowing people to set on/off schedules for their appliances, and even turn them on/off from the road. The company says the smart plugs, which are expected to be released in early 2011, will pay for themselves within six months in energy savings. Tenrehte showcased another smart plug, the PicoWatt, which fits over an existing outlets and functions like a mini Wi-Fi router capable of gathering data and controlling your devices. View and control your data and energy usage from any wi-fi-enabled device, including your mobile phone!

The most interesting show-off in our opinion was the third presented, EcoVative Design. Their product is EcoCradle, an eco-friendly response to styrofoam. EcoCradle uses filamentous fungi (mushroom roots) to transform agricultural byproducts like cotton seed hulls and buck wheat hulls into a protective packaging that's completely compostable and will actually improve your soil if you throw it in your garden. No more toxic white stuff that never breaks down!

Sustainable Show-Off, from left to right: The Modlet, the PicoWatt, EcoCradle

Next up Maria Tate of HP talked about HP's closed loop ink cartridge recycling program, and Peter Fannon of Panasonic talked about how Panasonic's newest, largest plasma TVs operate at less than ½ the power that smaller TVs did only four years ago. Their newest TVs also contain no lead, no cadmium, and are very easy to disassemble.

And finally, the Greener Gadgets Design Competition winner was decided and announced: congratulations to AUD/Living Goods Program, a conceptual mobile phone app that scans product barcodes and instantly gives info on the product's producer, how far the food has come, if the product is in season, historical pricing, detailed consumer ratings and your own purchasing history. We'd love to have this app on our phone.

A very interesting day! Glad the snow didn't keep us away.

(Images: Top image - Inhabitat; ANDREA image - Cambria Bold; Modlet and Picowatt images - CNET; EcoCradle - EcoVative Design)

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