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Are greener gadgets even possible?

The urge to buy the latest gadget and to reform environmental misbehavior may be the twin pillars of 21st century American youth culture, but can the two ever be reconciled? Apple, Dell, Intel, Nokia and others—companies with an array of "green" initiatives and (more) environmentally friendly products—sure hope so. But wind power kite scientist and serial inventor Saul Griffith is skeptical, according to his keynote address at the Greener Gadgets conference in New York City this past Friday.

Griffith, the intellectual force behind wattzon.com ( where you can calculate the energy use of your lifestyle), has another term for the gadget-obsessed, himself included: "planet f&*kers." A detailed analysis of the energy required to produce everything from his daily glass of wine to his iPhone revealed that Griffiths requires some 25,000 watts of energy every day, or nearly twice that of the average American (who is already consuming at least six times as much as the average person in China and more than 20 times as much as the average Indian citizen).

A big part of that is all that time spent on the computer. As Stephen Harper, Intel's global director of environment and energy policy, put it: "As the chips get smaller and denser, we end up with a laptop with the heat output of a nuclear power plant." The chipmaker hopes to get around that by emphasizing energy efficiency over speed. But the fact remains that computers are becoming ever more energy hungry.

Software is at least partially to blame. Instead of relying on "good enough" principles, as designer Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign, a San Francisco product design firm, noted at the confab, software makers have allowed their programs to expand to employ every bit of available computing power—and helped drive a race to bigger, faster, more powerful chips.

At the same time, computer and other gadget makers have been reforming their ways, buying oodles (not googles, mind you) of electricity from renewable sources like the wind and sun and spending billions of dollars to find replacements for lead (linked to brain damage, stunted growth and learning disabilities in exposed children and developing fetuses) in their products. The problem is that the lead substitutes, such as cadmium, that they've come up with so far can be just as bad. "The industry spent two-plus billion dollars to get rid of lead," Harper said, "and it's not clear the environment is better off."

Still, more sustainable materials—from plastic polymers made from potato starch to paper made of sheep poo—can only help. And employing even seemingly problematic materials, such as plastics derived from petroleum, can have transformative social impacts. Among them: rolling Hippo water transporters in Africa or durable light-emitting diode (LED) lights that can replace some of the kerosene lanterns still employed by at least two billion people in the developing world.

Safely recycling electronic products at the end of their useful life—to prevent  exposure to e-waste potentially containing lead and mercury (known to cause brain, kidney and lung damage)—is key, and has  spawned take-back programs from all the major electronics producers, as noted by Carl Smith, president and CEO of Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., an industry-led effort to promote recycling of nickel-cadmium batteries.

Ultimately, however, it will take a new way of doing business that is not predicated on continuous consumption and planned obsolescence. "You don't make a lot of money selling batteries every 5,000 hours,"  said Mark Bent, president and CEO of SunNight Solar, a Houston, Tex. company that produces durable flashlights powered by the sun. "You do selling them every 15 hours."

Griffith called this new business plan the "heirloom" economy: one based on service and repair and a cell phone made to last 25 years or more. That's the only way to cut his own daily energy use from 25,000 watts to just 2,500 watts—the amount he figures is necessary to ensure that greenhouse gas concentrations don't rise above 450 parts-per-million in the atmosphere and forestall catastrophic climate change. That also entails leaving room for others—think China and India—to swell their energy use and will require terawatts of clean wind and solar power.

But until the need for the latest and greatest gadget is curbed, truly green consumer electronics will remain more a slogan than a reality. "This conference should be obsolete in 15 years," said Rahul Sharma of Freeplay Energy, a U.K. company that makes self-powered devices such as radios, "because this becomes so embedded in the culture."

Bonus: We live-Twittered the conference. See our stream here and here and follow us at http://twitter.com/sciam.

Credit: Courtesy of Apple

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