I spent last week in Sweden as part of a four-city SQL Server 2008 roadshow. One of the hotels that I stayed in was the Scandic, and it was very interesting to note that the hotel placed a banner at the top of my home page in Internet Explorer (IE). The banner rotated through several questions, many of which had to do with the hotel’s efforts to reduce waste, which I could click to be taken to other web pages. One of the links took me to a page (http://www.scandichotels.com/About-Us/Responsible-living/Award-winning-sustainability-work/ ) detailing the Scandic Hotel’s award-winning efforts to introduce sustainability practices into its operations. One of the reasons that this page was of particular interest to me is that my husband has been pursuing sustainability initiatives for our local school district as part of his role on the School Board. He had read a book about a sustainability initiative called “The Natural Step,” which discussed massive efforts in Sweden toward building sustainable businesses and communities. So here was some of the evidence of the sustainability activities in Sweden, right in front of me.

So I started thinking about my work, the world of technology in general, and how “green” it truly is. My flying around all over the world certainly isn’t reducing my carbon footprint; however, when I’m not flying around, I’m working in my home office, so I’m not involved in a daily commute or using excessive office energy. Technology’s ability to allow for remote work and long-distance collaboration can have a major positive impact on our planet’s resources. However, there’s also very negative side of technology’s impact on our resources.  Almost all of the hardware involved with technology will be obsolete in a few years, and then we’ll want new hardware. What do we do with the old hardware? Although there are recycling and reuse programs, not everything can be recycled or reused. Many of the component parts of our technology are toxic, so they shouldn’t simply be disposed of in the trash, although many people do that.

On my trip home from Sweden, I was checking my email in an airport lounge in Frankfurt, using a Kensington multipurpose adapter that let me power my computer from AC current or from the DC connections on the airplane or in an automobile. It was the only power adapter I had with me. In my hurry to pack up my things to board my plane, the short cable from the adapter to the wall socket ended up not finding its way back into my bag. After I arrived home, I called the manufacturer to ask for a replacement, which I was willing to purchase. It turned out that if my adapter was still under warranty, the company could have sent me a replacement cable for no charge, but the cable wasn’t for sale. My only option was to purchase a new adapter, with all the cables, and tips for various devices, included. Of course, that lets Kensington make more money, but it would leave me with a power adapter that I wouldn’t use. Because the cables are all separate from the power adapter unit, it made no sense that the cables weren’t available to be purchased separately. It just seemed so wasteful to me, and I’m not referring to the money.

This situation reminded of something a friend told me years ago. He worked for a consumer products company for many years as a DBA, and one of the products the company sold was batteries. When laptops and notebook computers were first achieving widespread popularity, this company started to work on setting a standard for portable computer batteries, so that they were interchangeable and usable by many different computers from different manufacturers. The word was that the company got no support from computer manufacturers, who all insisted on producing their own proprietary batteries. So if you buy a spare battery for your current computer, it will be useless for your next computer. In the early days, a manufacturer might not even make interchangeable parts for their own products. My first Dell computer didn’t have a built-in DVD drive, but I could purchase one to replace the removable CD drive.  When I upgraded to a new Dell, the same DVD drive didn’t fit and I had to buy a new one.

Some old hardware might become collectors’ items some day, such as my Atari 800, but I strongly doubt anyone will ever be interested in removable DVD drives, external floppy drive readers, batteries to non-existent computers, or all the cords and cables that don’t work with anything anymore. Of course, there are also old cell phones, digital cameras, and DVD players that are discarded when they stopped working, or when the owner is upgrading to the latest and greatest technology. There are recycling and reuse programs, which I take advantage of whenever possible, and I suggest visiting http://earth911.org/recycling/computer-recycling-reuse for ideas about what to do with your discarded hardware.

I would be willing to support any manufacturer that starts making reusable, planet-friendly electronic devices. If I have the option, I will also choose to buy from a manufacturer who considers reusability in their manufacturing processes. When I buy my new multipurpose power adapter, I will gladly pay a bit more for a product for which replacement parts are easily available.  I think if everyone were willing to support the companies that are working toward more environmentally friendly products, and avoid the companies that pay no attention to sustainability, it could make a big difference.