This article is a pretty decent reminder that boils down to consuming is rarely green.
Want the Greenest Device? You May Already Own It
One way to help the planet is not to buy new tech, especially stuff the planet never needed, says Kendra Pierre-Louis, who reports on the environment.
Featuring Kendra Pierre-Louis
- Nov. 20, 2019
How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Kendra Pierre-Louis, who covers the environment and climate, discussed the tech she’s using.
Kendra, what tech tools are most important for doing your work?
I use the standard suite of office software, from Google Docs to Office, depending on my specific needs. (Docs is better when it comes to edit trace, but I prefer Excel for certain things.)
I also use Tabula a lot to scrape data out of PDFs, and the Hemingway app to make sure that what I wrote is at least somewhat understandable. I appreciate the app’s color coding of things as diverse as complex sentences and passive voice.
For recording interviews, I use an external recorder because I don’t trust phone recording apps — I want to see that the device is actually recording. If it’s a phone call (or a Skype call), I’ll use it with a pickup microphone. I’ve had my setup for about five years, which is a pretty good run.
You recently wrote about buying clothes that last. Is there a method to buying tech that lasts?
Tech has a tremendous footprint. One estimate by the Lawrence Berkeley Lab said it took 70 billion kilowatt-hours in 2014, or nearly 2 percent of the total electricity generation in the United States that year, just to run the internet.
And then, of course, there are the materials used to create tech. The lithium-ion batteries that are in so many things, like my smartwatch, my cellphone and your earbuds, typically contain cobalt, which was potentially mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo using forced child labor and in conditions that hurt both people’s health and the environment.
Many companies will say their phones are recyclable, but even when they are recycled (and that process can be incredibly environmentally polluting as well), the metal is generally too low a grade to go into a new phone. All of which, yes, points to a need for tech that lasts.
I don’t know if there’s a method as detailed as the one I laid out in my article on clothes. I can say I tend to hold on to electronics for years — I once had a laptop that lasted nine years. Toward the end, people teased me about it because it was, physically speaking, a brick. I got my workout carrying that thing around.
Part of the reason it lasted so long was that I bought a machine that was faster, had a larger hard drive and could expand its memory more than I needed. So as software and the internet evolved to require more memory and higher processor speeds, the computer could handle it.
Also, I really took care of it. Every couple of years, I had tech repair shops clean its insides to remove the dust that built up inside. You can also do this yourself, but I liked having a professional do it for me.
And part of it is that the machine itself was well constructed, which I learned the hard way when I dumped an entire bowl of basil chicken on the keyboard. In most current laptops, that would immediately fry the computer, but the way that computer was constructed I only fried the keyboard. Replacing the keyboard only cost me $40 and the computer lasted another three years.
The secret is buying tech that really fits your uses, looking at reviews like the ones on iFixit about how easy it is to repair and taking care of things once you have them. Put a case on your phone. For my current phone, which is too big for me to use in one hand because most phones are designed for men’s hands, which tend to be larger, I got a PopSocket to make it less likely that I will drop it.
What does your eco-conscious tech setup look like at home?
I think the greenest things I do are the things that I don’t buy, honestly.
What tech trends or products are the least sustainable?
The products that are the least sustainable are the ones that don’t, objectively, need to exist.
I try to tread lightly here because I’m aware that some products that leave me scratching my head can be for people with physical disabilities or mobility issues. Maybe that’s the reason behind, say, motion-detecting garbage cans, which I acknowledge are cool.
But even if that really is a mobility need, does it have to be connected to the internet so it can reorder its own garbage bags?
When I think about the tremendous resources devoted to just that, it shocks me. Amazon has since canceled the Dash buttons, but each button had a full circuit board inside it, and the company has said it sold millions. Think of millions of circuit boards — the oil converted into plastic, the ore mined and the electricity used to turn that into metal for the circuits just so you won’t forget to order laundry detergent.
Does the world need a smart water bottle, or can you just set a reminder on your phone to drink water?
You’ve started tracking your sleep. What have you done with the data? Has sleep tracking been helpful?
It’s less that I have sleep problems and more that I have a bad habit of neglecting sleep and then wondering why I’m so exhausted. It’s a common malady of modern life.
At the same time, I know how important sleep is. Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, has this expression, “The shorter you sleep, the shorter your life,” so for the past year and a half I’ve been trying to get better about allocating enough sleep.
To that end, I have the dumbest smartwatch on the planet. It doesn’t have a GPS tracker, for example, and it has a standard watch face so almost nobody suspects it’s a smartwatch. I thought a really long time about whether I really needed it, but I’ve had it for just under two years and just replaced the watchband, so I don’t feel bad about it. I can send it back to the manufacturer to swap out the battery when it dies.
I don’t care at all about the sleep breakdowns like deep sleep versus R.E.M. sleep, which most research says are flawed and may be especially flawed for people with dark skin. I just care about total sleep. I try to use the data to make my sleep routine, and make sure that my weekly averages are decent.
Kendra Pierre-Louis is a reporter on the climate team. Before joining The Times in 2017, she covered science and the environment for Popular Science. @kendrawrites