I need to start this story with a confession. When push comes to shove, I routinely delete segments of my podcast interviews in which I ask participants about their sustainability efforts, or how they address the conflict of selling devices that won’t be software-supported for the entirety of the hardware’s useful life. Sometimes I do this because of time, or because the participant doesn’t have a great answer. And sometimes I do it because I think my audience would prefer to hear about new features, how to get employees to adopt IoT, or standards such as Project Connected Home over IP.
The point is that sustainability is almost always the easiest thing for me to cut. As it turns out, this is true for the smart home and even for enterprise IoT deployments. Despite many companies promoting conservation and carbon-reduction programs, when businesses invest in IoT, only 31% are thinking about sustainability, according to a Microsoft IoT Signals report out this week. But this is a conversation we need to be having.
One of the biggest shifts wrought by the internet of things is that when we put computing into everyday devices, we are adding plastic, metals, and any number of components that are difficult to recycle. We are also basically limiting the life of a hardware product to that of its software. And while there are disposable electronics makers experimenting with different layouts and glues to make those electronics recyclable, those companies are relatively rare.
More commonly, when consumer electronics companies talk about sustainability they are talking about using recycled materials in their products, or how their products can help conserve energy. Last month, Amazon took things a step further by talking about how it will add a new badge to its products that meet up to 19 sustainability goals. The Climate Pledge Friendly label applies to roughly 25,000 of its products, including some IoT devices, such as Amazon’s new Echo devices and Fire TV sticks.
Amazon also talked about how connected electronic devices in the home can be redesigned to draw less power, and how it tried to change the power consumption profiles of its Echo devices. In the meantime, it’s been using all kinds of technology tools to reduce the packaging associated with the devices sold in its marketplace. Its multipronged approach gets to one of the challenges with thinking and talking about sustainability: There are many ways to reduce the impact our consumer devices have on the environment.
I’d like to push the industry to think more about the useful life of products and make it easier to recycle those products’ various components. Each one of us probably has a box of old devices lying around the house filled with first-generation products comprised of metals and plastics.
Earlier this year, I wrote about Emplacement, which wants to help device makers show consumers where to recycle their products. I’d like to see more businesses make it easy to find local recycling as part of the device decommissioning process. For example, if I were to go through the steps of taking a device off my network or deleting my account, I could get a screen that provides recycling information either by giving me a local address or offering me the option to ship the device back to the vendor. That’s a way to empower consumers, although I think placing the burden on them is a fairly limited approach. I would also like to see companies have in-depth discussions about how to design for recyclability and about the expected useful lifespan of their products—and what happens after that lifespan ends.
These issues become especially important as we add connectivity to large and expensive machines like appliances. For example, my parents owned a Kenmore washing machine for 18 years before getting rid of it during a remodel; they then passed it along to my brother, who has now had it for five years. Yet there is no scenario in which I can imagine a company supporting a connected washing machine for 23 years. Among those building so-called “long-lived connected devices,” a 10-year lifespan appears to be the norm. I get that providing security updates for a 23-year-old washing machine would be daunting. Even at a dollar a month for cloud support, a 23-year-old machine’s cloud costs would be $276 over the lifetime of the product which is a lot to add to the overall sales price of a machine.
What options do we have to stop a giant appliance from hitting the dump? Manufacturer-led recycling programs are one option, although they would prompt us to buy new machines every decade, which has its own ecological consequences. Another idea is to allow for the decommissioning of connectivity from a device. It wouldn’t be part of a smart grid or tell you via notifications when something is wrong, but it could still wash clothing.
So while I applaud the efforts of Google and Amazon to use recycled materials in their new products, I also want to make room for a larger conversation around how to encourage sustainability, both in the product life cycle and in terms of component design. Introducing into the home a class of devices that used to live forever and giving them life cycles of a decade or less is not green. Consider this an impassioned plea from someone who still has her 2014 first-generation Amazon Echo device in her bedroom and is in knots about replacing it because, one, it still sort of works, and two, I don’t know how to recycle it.
We need to talk about how to handle products that will lose their functionality before their physical parts wear out. The solution isn’t simply to buy a new Amazon Echo to replace the old one. As software continues to eat the world, manufacturers need to invest in programs to recycle the hardware when that software no longer works.