In the world of tech, there’s a lot of talk about design. Mostly, we talk about user-interface design or the kind of sleek ‘n’ sexy looks that have skyrocketed Apple’s products to the top of the heap for the tech-chic crowd. But design matters when it comes to Green IT, too — and I’m not just talking about bamboo boxes and less packaging.
This week was the Greener by Design conference, held in San Francisco, and there were a lot of great panels on the ways that tech companies are tweaking their design process to boost efficiency (for the end user), reduce packaging, cut waste and use design as a tool for innovation. But there was one aspect that didn’t seem to get a lot of attention: designing products for what happens to them at the end of their life. (Although, Terracycle was on the scene to talk about making goods from garbage.)
In the world of green IT, end-of-life disposal is a big brown spot. Many of the components that go into the millions of gadgets and gizmos in our homes, offices and data centers, contain elements with nasty, toxic substances, posing a major health and environmental issue (particularly in the developing world). There aren’t a lot of incentives for e-waste recycling, and even where policies mandate it, recycling capacity can’t always keep up with demand. Last week, Dell banned the export of non-working e-waste to developing countries, and this week Texas Rep. Gene Greene introduced HR 2595, a piece of legislation aimed at preventing the export of e-waste with toxic components. Both steps, while good, have garnered criticism for not going far enough.
But dealing with e-waste at the end of its life is a little like that old “River Babies” adage used in preventative-health circles: If you see a bunch of babies floating downstream, don’t just try to fish them out; stop the babies from falling in upstream.
Green design doesn’t just mean bamboo computer casing and smaller packaging. It also means making gadgets easier to tweak, take apart and tear down, or designing products without toxic substances. Even when a gadget goes bad, companies can reclaim value from their products more easily, by salvaging the bits and pieces that are still good. Nokia is one company that’s taken a lead on this approach. And, while companies might worry about losing out on the big-budget refresh, designing products that have easily removable (and upgradeable) components could wind up developing more loyal customers in the long term. As enterprise computing gear becomes increasingly commoditized, that could be a lucrative path for companies to follow.
I’ve said it before, but as smaller, faster, more energy-efficient, more mobile and just plain more consumer and enterprise devices come to market each year, e-waste issues — from product design to recovery — will be critical. Maybe tech companies should take a page from Terracycle’s Tom Szaky: “I don’t see waste anymore,” he told the Greener Design crowd. “I just see cash.”