Sustainable Tech and Products: What You Can Do
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.
Nearly half a century later, I still have the Unimat. And it still works, a testament to 1970's quality Austrian engineering and manufacturing.
ModularityMaking 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!
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.
Laptop and Desktop Computers
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:
Companies that Repair/Repurpose used equipment
Supporting Old TechThere are lots of companies/projects that provide updated support for hardware that is abandoned by the original vendor. Just a few examples:
Re-using used stuff saves (money and the environment)
Got more ideas on sustainability? Let me know.