Greener Gadgets Conference Highlights Scope of Consumption, Creative Solutions

greener gadgets logo.JPGScary statistics and eerily beautiful photos of thousands of scrapped circuit boards. On-site cell phone recycling and a spirited discussion of the first hand-held universal charging device. Robot geese and organic vodka. These are some of the diverse ways that last Friday’s Greener Gadgets conference in New York City conveyed the immense scale of–and creative solutions to–a problem that those eager to upgrade to the next best gizmo (admit it, you can’t stop thinking about the MacBook Air) don’t usually consider: the environmental, social, and financial impacts of the 400 million gadgets that are scrapped each year. We were there taking notes (on recycled paper, using only a pencil made from sustainable wood from independently-certified, well-managed forests).

“This is a design conference and an environmental conference, but it’s also a business conference,” said Greener Gadgets conference co-chair Marc Alt, president of Marc Alt + Partners, kicking off the event, which was divided into three categories: materials and lifecycle, energy, and social sustainability. Co-chair Jill Fehrenbacher, founder and editor-in-chief of Inhabitat, then welcomed the capacity crowd with some sobering statistics, including the fact that 150,000 computers are discarded each day, and along with them, toxic chemicals such as mercury and lead.

Although the quantitative scope of the issues provided a vital grounding in the issues, the audience was dominated by designers, so things soon moved to the visual realm with an opening keynote by digital photography artist and environmental advocate Chris Jordan, who showed the crowd this photo:

chris jordan cell phone chargers.jpg

It’s a sea of discarded cell phone chargers he photographed in Atlanta in 2004.

“What I’m trying to do is show the scale of American mass consumption,” said Jordan. “Because the scale of our consumption is invisible….It’s divided out into so many manufacturing processes and waste streams. We can only relate to it with statistics.” Or through his work, which often combines photography with digital imaging to produce thought-provoking images that help people to comprehend the scale of the world’s consumption.

Jordan is kind of like an eco-warrior version of Andreas Gursky. He might spend a day photographing, for example, a table-sized jumble of cell phone headsets in various configurations, and then “digitally stitch them together” in an image that contains 426,000–the number that are retired (whether thrown away, or more typically, put in a drawer) in a single day. He’s done the same with office paper, shopping bags, and plastic beverage containers, often superimposing upon them human figures or familiar landmarks (Seattle’s Space Needle, the Manhattan skyline) to help people grasp what they’re seeing.

Jordan concluded his presentation with a passionate call to action. “The green movement is stalling out a little bit. There’s this hesitation happening, where everyone’s waiting for everyone else to do it,” he told the audience. “It’s because the green movement isn’t cool yet.” And that’s where the $150 billion consumer electronics industry comes in. “I think it is by far the coolest thing that American culture has going for it,” said Jordan. “When the electronics industry shows up with sustainable products…that’s going to send a message to 100 million young Americans that being green and sustainable is cool, and the sprint will begin…2008 is the year.”

Stay tuned to UnBeige for more on the Greener Gadgets conference. Next up, an in-depth look at the One Laptop Per Child Project’s XO Laptop, from technology pioneer Mary Lou Jepsen.