The quest for sustainable consumer electronics: Rethinking products and business models

Greener gadgets have to look the part, last for a long time and eventually be made of completely new materials, according to experts and industry insiders.

A woman working in a lab.

Assistant professor Shweta Agarwala in her lab at Aarhus University.

Photo: Lars Kruse/ Aarhus University

Can something really be called green tech if it can poison you?

That's a question Aarhus University assistant professor Shweta Agarwala had to ask herself during her postdoctoral research a few years ago. "I was working with these perovskite solar cells," she recalled during a recent interview with Protocol. "They are very good, but they have this lead component in them."

At the time, Agarwala was pregnant, and she had several other expecting colleagues working in her lab as well. Health experts warn that lead exposure can be harmful to pregnant people as well as their unborn babies. "If I can't even work with those materials because they are so toxic, how can I expect this to be out in the market? This is just not safe," she said.

For Agarwala, this realization prompted an interest in researching more sustainable materials that could one day completely change how electronics are made. But the anecdote can also be seen as a metaphor for the consumer electronics industry as a whole as it attempts to build more sustainable gadgets.

Companies have made great strides in phasing out superfluous packaging and incorporating a higher percentage of recycled materials into the plastics and metals used for the outer shells of their devices. However, once opened up, those gadgets still largely rely on the same kinds of toxic and hard-to-recycle chips, batteries and circuit boards that have been used for decades.

Transitioning to truly sustainable consumer electronics is a much more challenging endeavor that will require new materials and new ways of dealing with older devices. But first it will require a new way of thinking that does away with the yearly hype cycles around the latest gadget releases, and instead promotes longevity and reuse.

This story is the second in a two-part series about sustainable consumer electronics. You can read the first part here.

Designing for longevity

When Google's hardware team committed to making more sustainable products, it quickly realized that using recycled plastics, textiles and metals was only part of the bigger picture. "Another pillar is this idea of designing for longevity," said Google design director Isabelle Olsson. "Making sure that the products we create stand the test of time. Are we creating designs that really feel like it's something you want to keep? The most sustainable products are the products that people don't throw away, but actually care for."

That approach has to carry across multiple generations of devices, as people often build out their smart home over time, starting with just one product. "That's really part of our design process, even down to the colors and the finishes and materials we're choosing, making sure that previous generations don't mismatch to future generations," Olsson said. "We really need to design things that belong in the home, fit in a home, that people want to keep for a long time."

Designing for longevity may sound like an obvious idea, but it's actually an important shift for an industry that for too long focused on yearly upgrade cycles for some of its most important products. Screen sizes and designs of phones in particular change every year or two, instilling a sense of FOMO in everyone who has yet to buy the latest and greatest model.

A product designed for longevity, on the other hand, would have a completely different message: Relax, it's OK to stick with my predecessor. "The form factor of the [Nest] Mini speaker was consistent generation over generation," said Google hardware director of sustainability Anna Meegan. "That to me is a really beautiful concept, to say: Let's not create this frenzy around needing to upgrade. To me, changing that kind of cultural expectation is a big part of what we need to do."

It's a sentiment shared by Amazon's hardware team, according to Rachel Praetorius, who leads sustainability for Amazon's devices business. "We don't want our customers to be on the upgrade treadmill," she said. "We want customers to buy our device and then use it and enjoy it for as long as possible."

Sometimes, this approach also means embracing material and design choices that deemphasize technology. "When we developed the latest Nest Thermostat, we knew we wanted to make it much more accessible to people," Olsson recalled. Making the smart thermostat cheaper, while also making it visually appealing enough for consumers to keep it a decade or more in their homes, was a unique design challenge.

"We don't want our customers to be on the upgrade treadmill. We want customers to buy our device and then use it and enjoy it for as long as possible."

"[For] products with screens, the display border you see is often a reflection of the year that the product was built," Olsson said. "The bigger the borders, the more it dates it. And the more anxiety you're going to have about, oh, I need to upgrade." After experimenting with a range of materials, Olsson's team ultimately landed on a mirror that hides the screen from plain view but displays all the necessary information on it. "We can be more modern looking, stand the test of time better, at an accessible price point, [and] simplify the number of parts," she said. "There's this notion of, well, you can't be sustainable and beautiful at the same time, and you truly can."

Saving electronics from landfills

Even sustainably designed gadgets are eventually being replaced by newer models. Too often, those devices still end up in landfills. Each U.S. resident generates an average of 44 pounds of e-waste every year, according to World Economic Forum estimates. 80% of the gadgets that are thrown away every year around the world aren't being properly recycled; a significant subset of this e-waste finds its way into developing countries, where it is often being harvested for rare metals under hazardous conditions. In Nigeria alone, around 100,000 people are estimated to be part of an informal e-waste economy, according to the International Labour Organization.

Disrupting that cycle is easier than it seems, according to ecoATM CEO Dave Maquera, whose company specializes in cell phone trade-ins through kiosks placed in chain stores like Walmart. "We created an automated technology that takes a really cumbersome trade-in process, if you've ever done it in a store, and boils it down to a few minutes using an automated kiosk," Maquera said.

EcoATM used to be part of the same company that also operates Redbox's DVD rental kiosk and Coinstar's cash collection machines, but has been operating as a separate corporate entity since 2016, which is when Maquera stepped in as CEO. One reason he wanted the job was the immense potential he saw in the electronics trade-in business, Maquera recently told Protocol. "There's about 1.4 billion new smartphones sold every year," he said. "They largely replace existing smartphones. There's not a lot of new market penetration. It's really ironic, because less than 50% of the global population actually owns a smartphone."

That's why ecoATM is working with distributors around the globe to give used smartphones a second chance. "We're putting reusable, affordable smartphones into the hands of people who could never before afford the price points of a new phone," Maquera said. "You have this incredible circular economy thing going on with the single largest electronic product category in the history of humankind."

EcoATM currently operates around 5,000 kiosks in North America and Europe, and generates close to $400 million in revenue per year, according to Maquera. The company's kiosks helped to collect more than 28 million phones from 2010 to 2020. High-end phones are being sold domestically through ecoATM's Gazelle website, while others are being fixed and sold through third-party distributors. "About 90% end up getting reused, and about 10% are beyond economic repair," he said. Anything that can't be fixed gets diverted to vetted recycling facilities.

Part of the reason for ecoATM's success seems to be the promise of real cash, which leads to consumers prioritizing devices that can be salvaged. "Plus the technology's come a long way," Maquera said. "The life of the phone, their survivability, is pretty decent, even after four or five years."

One aspect that has not necessarily improved over the years, however, is repairability. In many cases, fixing a broken phone does not just require special screwdrivers, but also access to repair parts that manufacturers aren't sharing with the wider market. Advocates have long proposed right-to-repair laws to simplify independent servicing of consumer electronics. "I would highly encourage the right to repair," Maquera said. "It would benefit everybody if we just had more parts available from the manufacturers or from their suppliers so that we could make economic repairs to smartphones and get those back in the marketplace."

The right-to-repair movement has gotten some new momentum under the Biden administration, and even some of the major manufacturers are seemingly starting to warm up to it. "It's completely in alignment with sustainability goals," said Google's Meegan. "A longer-live device is the most sustainable thing that we could do." Meegan said that she was "in support of everyone's focus on improving repairability of our devices and access to those repair services."

(A Google spokesperson did not comment on the company's stance on right-to-repair laws, but said the company had been working on improving its own device repair services. This included reducing the frequency of screen and cover replacements during device repairs from 98% to 20%.)

Maquera believes that regulators could do even more to encourage a circular economy in which devices are being reused and repaired. Pointing to the kinds of bottle deposit kiosks common in European supermarkets, he suggested that consumers may be willing to trade in even more devices if there was a guaranteed minimum trade-in fee that was covered by levies imposed on manufacturers. One could imagine an implementation that would pay people at least $50 for each returned phone, no matter the state of the device. "Where governments seem to be very effective is in providing economic incentive to the mass market and backing it up with regulation on the industry side," he said.

Building a new hardware economy

Building a truly circular economy for consumer electronics, and getting manufacturers to develop devices that will last longer while also telling consumers that they won't have to upgrade every year anymore: All of these things require fundamental changes to the consumer electronics industry, and perhaps even regulatory pressure. However, there are reasons to be optimistic, as the industry has begun a significant shift of its own.

While consumer electronics makers used to rely solely on hardware sales for their bottom lines, companies like Amazon and Google increasingly use hardware to increase their services revenues, both through subscriptions and advertising.

Nowhere is this transition more obvious than in the living room. TV prices declined by 60% between 2014 and 2019, and streaming devices that used to cost $100 or more can now be bought for $30 or less, with companies instead betting on recurring revenue streams from a variety of services. On the one hand, this has led to an increase in disposable gadgets. There's no point in trying to repair a cheap streaming stick, as labor costs would easily outweigh the price of a new one.

On the other hand, it is starting to matter a lot less to device makers whether you actually buy that latest version of their devices, as long as you keep using their services. Case in point: Instead of developing its own version of a cheap TV dongle to compete with Roku, Google and Amazon, Apple decided to just bring its own apps and services to competing smart TV platforms. Plus, even some cheaper gadgets can help you be more sustainable. "You plug a Chromecast in, and it makes old TVs smart and new again, so you don't have to throw [them] away," Meegan said.

But while the transition to services-based revenue models may make it easier for companies to embrace sustainability, it could take more to drive that message home with consumers as well. "In the space of consumer electronics, we have an opportunity to shift the expectations to a different model," Meegan said. "If you look at appliances built in the 1980s, there are washing machines that work for 30 or 40 years. It's really been a more recent trend where we've been forced, just due to hardware constraints or technology evolution, to move into this upgrade cycle."

In some cases, those hardware constraints are real, and tech advances have forced companies to push new products. For instance, streaming devices from a few years ago don't support the latest and greatest in 4K and cinematic audio. At the same time, increasing broadband speeds make it possible to outsource some of the heavier compute to the cloud, raising the specter of devices that get upgraded with simple software updates.

"In the long term, [we] hope to get to a place where we're even upgrading our products," Meegan said. "It's sort of like we're going backwards in time. If we could go back to computers from 20 or 30 years ago, you regularly updated hardware. Why can't we do that today?"

It may be easier for companies like Amazon and Google to forgo consumer hardware upgrades in favor of services revenues than others. Especially smaller manufacturers, or companies making accessories without an obvious tie-in for services, are still reliant on consumers regularly buying new products. Even if those products become more sustainable, they will still have an environmental footprint.

That's why gaming hardware company Razer has been taking some baby steps toward diversifying its business in other ways. The company launched a $50 million green investment fund this spring, and has since invested in a company building robots to clean up the world's oceans as well as one trying to produce more sustainable toilet paper. "It's really exciting because it represents not just a corporate social responsibility cost, but is actually potentially a top line growth for us as well," said Razer's chief of staff, Patricia Liu.

Rethinking the nature of electronics

At the same time, the industry will also have to figure out how to build fully sustainable gadgets, which is where researchers like Agarwala come in. "Traditionally, we use a lot of metals and silicon-based [components] in our electronics, and they need very heavy-handed processing techniques, which are full of chemicals," she said. "What I'm trying to do is replace these traditional materials with more sublime polymers or nontoxic materials, which can be synthesized, used and disposed of in a green way."

Agarwala is currently researching novel materials that could one day be used to create fully biodegradable electronics, with a special focus on developing biodegradable and nontoxic polymers. "We start from bottom up, build a library of materials first, and then take tiny steps towards making a printed circuit board," she explained. Much of her current efforts are focused on emerging medical technology, since the need for non-toxic materials is the highest in an area that deals with implants and other devices with immediate impact on a person's body.

However, Agarwala believes that the type of materials she is working on could ultimately also be used to build more sustainable consumer electronics. That's especially true if combined with printed electronics. "For example, right now, you have [a lot of] electronics in cars. All of that is traditional, circuit board-based electronics. What if we are able to replace that by printing directly on dashboards, or car seats, or handles? You are going to take away all those traditional components," Agarwala said.

By relying on new types of materials to turn things themselves into electronics, companies could not only phase a lot of toxic materials out of their production process, but also radically cut down on electronic waste.

"I don't want my electronics moving forward to have these dangling wires or hard, rigid circuit boards. I want electronics to be completely a part of the material that [they are] put on, whether it's a table or a textile," Agarwala said. "The idea is to change the way we perceive and we look at electronics."

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