April 22 will be the 47th edition of Earth Day, a celebration that dates back from 1970 and which main goal is to promote environmental awareness and foster individual and political actions to protect the environment and reduce global warming.
As this is a subject we care deeply about, we thought it would be interesting to talk about the environmental impact of the consumer electronic sector. The Internet of Things (and of course the smart home) is not only thought to profoundly change our lifestyles and our economies, it also has a powerful potential to promote a smarter way of producing, consuming and eventually disposing/recycling.
Our homes are significant sources of direct and indirect pollution. Taking only into consideration our household appliances and electronics, we can find many ways those impact on the environment
- The pollution due to the production of components
- The pollution due to the manufacturing
- The pollution due to the transportation of those manufactured appliances and electronics
- The pollution linked to the disposal of appliances and electronics
- The general pollution of their daily consumption of energy
Some elements of this pollution are visible and easy to assess precisely. However, the main part of this iceberg is hidden far from our eyes-sight, since both manufacturing and disposal are often taken care of thousands of miles away.
Beyond the promise of smart consumption and lifestyle, most smart devices imply a hidden impact on the environment, that results from both the disposal of old appliances/electronics and the production of new smart devices to replace them.
Let’s evaluate those two elements.
Electronic waste or e-waste is the mass of discarded electrical and electronic equipment. A United Nations study reported that 41.8 million tons of e-waste were discarded in 2014 (among which a majority of kitchen, laundry, and bathroom equipment), and that only between 10 to 40 percent of it has been properly disposed of.
This improper disposal is critical for the environment as those equipment contain many pollutants and/or toxic substances, among which americium, lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, sulphur brominated flame retardants (BFRs), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and beryllium oxide for the most hazardous ones. Almost all electronics contain lead and tin (as solder) and copper (as wire and printed circuit board tracks), although the use of lead-free solder is now spreading rapidly.
Even when considered as entering the recycling cycle, electronic waste might have an important impact on the environment. Informal recycling markets in China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines handle anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of this e-waste, often shredding, burning, and dismantling the products in “backyards.” Emissions from these recycling practices are critically damaging human health as well as impacting on the long-term the environment (air, soil and water) in those countries.
Environmental impact of new products and smart devices
Waste is not the only part of the consumer electronic chain that generates pollution. Manufacturing is also responsible for significant pollution on three levels: component production, manufacturing, transport.
Home appliances have average life cycles going from 9 to 25 years
Life cycles are however cut short by obsolescence that pushes a user to replace an equipment way before reaching the end of its expected lifespan, mainly for features or compatibility reasons. Smart devices and Smart home participate to that trend by pushing users to connect their appliances and electronics together and to the internet. This implies disposing of still useful equipment and producing new electronic devices as replacement.
The replacement production produces:
- Air pollution: many chemicals and gasses (including ozone-depleting substances)
- Water pollution: 20L of water are necessary to produce one chip, part of which is soiled by several chemicals to serve the production of the chip
Does this mean we should deprive ourselves of the great improvements of smart home?
Of course, not! It just means we should aim at a smart home that is not only smart from the integrated features but also smart from the way it is done.
Retrofitting, for a greener smart home
The concept of retrofitting is to take an already existing building, item, appliance and improve its features/use by implementing an add-on to it. For the IoT/smart home industry, that means adding a tiny element that will turn your dumb appliance into a smart device.
You guessed right! This is exactly what MicroBots do. MicroBot Push lets you turn old appliances, switches and other devices into smart devices and avoid unnecessary expenses and pollution.
But we’re not the only ones on this market. Sesame from Candy House let you easily make your door lock smarter and responsive to your smartphone. Emberlight developed also a plug-in element to connect any light bulb into a connected lighting system. And many more companies are trying to shift toward the retrofitting approach.
Retrofitting is not only smarter economically speaking (adding a ~$50 product to an already existing appliance – a thermostat for instance- can possibly do the same as a $250 smart device with potential hidden costs like annual service fees), but it is also much more environmentally wise. Implementing an IoT add-on (which production of course implies some pollution as well but only a fraction of it) allows you to get the same improved features and avoids all the heavy pollution generated by the disposal of your old appliance and the manufacturing of the replacing smart device.
According to a Park Associates study, 20 million units of smart thermostat were sold in the US alone between 2013 and 2017. This literally means that 20 million old but probably perfectly functional thermostat systems were sent to the trash (with the conditions of recycling that we know), while 20 million new “smart” units were produced (with the many pollutions generated by the manufacturing that we know), all for the purpose of adding new features that could have been possible with simple, cheaper and more ecological add-ons. This literally means that around 10,000 tons of e-waste¹ could have been avoided, and this for the case of thermostats alone!
Making our house smarter will definitely have to pass by better understanding what options we have and what each option implies in terms of pollution and cost. Better understanding our energy consumption can greatly impact on your ecological footprint while saving on unnecessary expenses. A 2012 study in the United Kingdom, carried out by the Energy Saving Trust, found that the devices using the most power on standby mode included televisions, satellite boxes and other video and audio equipment. The study concluded that UK households could save up to £86 per year by switching devices off instead of using standby mode. A simple add-on like MicroBot Push or a smart plug could easily do that for a fraction of this cost.
The smart home is not smart by itself. It is not a solution that you pay once to turn your lifestyle into something smarter. The smart home should rather push us to think more thoroughly about what we do and how we consume daily, so that we can precisely spot inefficiencies and fix them with technology.
To celebrate Earth Day and the environment, we wanted to make retrofitting an even more accessible option for you, and keep a strong environmental-friendly approach. Therefore, we offer you for this week only to purchase perfectly functional refurbished products at a discounted price (15%). These products want a second life and only wish to help you make your house smarter, so adopt one now!
¹Based on an average weight of 450g per thermostat ¹Based on an average weight of 450g per thermostat