Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Unsustainable tech product packaging

Linx evaluation kit - case not to scale
For the last 40 years or so I have been designing and developing electronic products.  Many of these products incorporate short range radio controls, and this has become a specialty of mine.  For the last 20 years or so I have been working with a company called Linx Technologies that make a broad line of miniature radio chips and antennas that are ideal for small products.  When they introduce a new product I sometimes order an evaluation kit from them that typically costs around $100.  These kits include battery-powered demonstration circuits that help to familiarize you with how they work.  

Linx have just released an exciting new radio product that I plan to use in a project I am currently developing so I ordered the relevant evaluation kit (see their promotional image above).  In the past, these kits were shipped in small custom fitted cardboard containers and it was quite simple to recycle the cardboard materials.  Not so with this newest kit that came in an aluminum case that weighs almost 3 pounds and measures 14" x 10" x 4".  I was stunned when the package arrived because it was so huge and heavy.  The distributor (Digi-Key Corp.) packed it in sustainably sourced paper packing material that can be recycled, but I have no idea what I am supposed to do with this large metal case.  I do not need to clutter my home office with this albatross, and will simply store the components on a shelf.  Here are is a picture of the relatively tiny (and not very fragile) parts inside the case:
Kit with all parts visible
I find the idea of shipping small items weighing only a few ounces in a 3 pound case to be completely offensive to my sensibilities as someone committed to living sustainably.  From my perspective this is a 1950s style Mad Men style promotional concept that has no place in today's world and it made me angry.  I also have to question the 1 pound stack of documentation that came in the kit.  While it is convenient to have paper manuals, technology companies do not commonly send any paper documentation with their samples since everything an engineer needs to know about their products is available from their website.  15+ years ago I used to have bookshelves filled with thick technical manuals, but they have all disappeared in favor of PDF documents readily available on corporate websites.

My small rural town recently switched to a Pay As You Throw (PAYT) program which requires our trash to be placed in specially purchased orange trash bags that cost $1 for a small bag and $2 for a large bag.  The purpose of this program is to incentivize increased recycling in our town and I am hoping it will have the desired effect.  Currently the town recycles around 20% of its waste stream, while I am averaging 60%.  The impact of the new program on me is that I resent companies that send me products packaged in bulky non-recyclable materials.  I have conveyed my displeasure to the sales person I work with, and he says he will talk to the marketing department at his company about my concern.

There are so many companies that are embracing social responsibility on so many levels that it makes me sad to see a good company that ignores the realities of a planet with finite resources.

After seeing this blog post, the Linx salesman that I work with offered to pay for return shipping of the offending metal case via FedEx.  I appreciate his thoughtful response to my displeasure.

A friend saw my blog and has asked if he can have the case.  Giving it to him has a lower carbon footprint than shipping it back across the country.  Everybody wins!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Sustainably sourced dining room chairs

My wife and I have separated after 20 good years and she has moved back to California where we first met.  It is an amicable separation but nonetheless she ended up taking a lot of furniture and other essentials with her.  This left me without a set of dining chairs.  Ideally I wanted chairs that were sustainably sourced in some way.  My original thought was to approach my friend and neighbor, John who is a skilled furniture maker because he had recently made a really stunning set of craftsman style chairs for his home.  But he explained that it would take up to a week per chair to make them even if I was helping and I realized I had neither the time or the money to invest.

My next step was to go to a local furniture store that represents Amish furniture makers.  They had a variety of samples that I found quite suitable for my needs at prices ranging from $230-$265 per chair and this was the upper limit for my budget.  The problem was that it would take 6 to 8 weeks to have the chairs made.  At this point it occurred to me that I really do not need heirloom quality furniture since I have no children or heirs who may wish to inherit furniture from me.  Also I did not want to wait that long because I had decided to convert the guest room in my house to a B&B using airbnb and wanted to get that set up pretty quickly.  Click here to see my listing, I have already had a few guests and I am getting reservations for the fall color season here in Maine which peaks in mid October. (We refer to the out-of-state visitors who come for the fall as "leaf peepers"). 

So finally I resorted to searching for chairs on the web and found a nice set of chairs from on sale for under $50 each.  While I was not particularly comfortable with the idea of chairs that are made in Malasia, I did learn that they were made from "sustainable rubber wood".  In doing my research I learned that rubber wood has come into usage in the last few decades as a secondary use for trees from rubber plantations.  When these trees reach the age of around 30 years, their production diminishes and they  are harvested for their wood and the plantation is replanted.  The wood itself is prone to infestations from beetles, but when treated properly and dried correctly it can look somewhat like mahogany.  It is an attractive hardwood that takes stain and finish very nicely.

The chairs arrived at the local Sears store in a few days partially assembled in flat boxes.  Assembly was surprisingly simple and easy and I was impressed with the quality of the finish and the engineering of the joinery that makes for a very sturdy chair.
Chair parts
First chair assembled

The chairs did not take long to assemble, and look good with my family heirloom Jacobean reproduction oak table from England.
Whenever I need to purchase anything, I recognize that I am voting with my dollars for - or against - a sustainable future for humanity.  I take every decision quite seriously, particularly when dealing with large items.  But this also scales down to purchasing food at the local grocery store, natural food stores, and farmers market.  I make every effort to support local agriculture or acquire foods that are not shipped in from another country.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Low cost to operate night lights

Here in rural Maine there are no streetlights or reflected city light at night so it gets DARK at night.  This means that when the lights are out inside the house it can be difficult to navigate to the bathroom or kitchen.  So for this reason I have liberally sprinkled nightlights throughout the house to make it easy to get around without having to turn on  lights.  
7 W night light
The classic old-style standard 7 W light bulb style nightlight has been obsolete for several years and I personally have never used them but I did the math and calculated that if you are paying $.10 per kilowatt hour (which is about average) for electricity, each one of those old light lights would cost over six dollars a year to operate which is more than many of them cost to purchase new off-the-shelf!  if you happen to have one of these dinosaurs in your home, I encourage you to discard it immediately and upgrade to the newer technologies.

In the past I have purchased three packs of electroluminescent nightlights for around $10-$12 and they tend to last several years before they eventually grow dim and become relatively useless.  I tested one of these lights and found that it draws .033 W for an estimated cost of about 2.5 cents/year.  A few days ago I was in the hardware store and saw a two pack of blue LED nightlights selling for under nine dollars and thought I would try them out.  LEDs draw a little more power at .125 W for an operating cost of around $.10/year.  LEDs are typically rated to last 30,000 to 50,000 hours so I expect these to last 3 to 5 years.

Here are some comparison images of LED (top) and electroluminescent (bottom)  with ambient lighting and lights out:
LED vs electroluminescent night light in ambient light

LED vs electroluminescent night light in the dark
The LED is significantly brighter and cast a visible pool of light in a dark hallway, while electroluminescent ones are just enough to see by, similar to moonlight coming through a window.

There are other types of night lights that contain light sensors and motion sensors so they turn off when they are not needed.  I suspect that those that use a motion sensor consume a fair amount of power even when they are off just to maintain the motion sensor.  (they do, see this blog post).  I leave mine on all the time since their cost to operate is so trivial.

Another small repair

This beautiful polished metal torchiere lamp was damaged a few years ago at the point where two of the sections of the main column screwed together.  It has been limping along for a while and I decided to repair it to use in my spare room which I will be renting out as an airbnb room soon.  Shown above is the repaired lamp that has been fully retrofitted with LED lamps.

The repair was relatively simple for me as a woodworker.  I cut a strip of ash and then milled out slots to create a "splint" for the bottom half of the lamp column.  Here is the before picture:
And a close-up of the wood channel that I made:
 Which I glued on around the column:
Works like a charm!

From a sustainability standpoint this is another large, heavy item that did not make it to the landfill.  Plus it saved me the expense of purchasing a new lamp!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A thinner wallet can be a good thing!

A few years ago I decided that my wallet had become too thick.  It contained the usual assortment of cards including driver's license, library card, debit and credit cards and also half a dozen rewards cards.  So I decided to do something about it.  I scanned in the face of all of my rewards cards, and then scanned the bar codes on the back and then tiled them all together in Photoshop:
I scaled the bar codes as large as practical and have never had a problem with them scanning at the cashier.  After I printed out the card, I covered both surfaces with 2 inch wide clear packing tape to protect it.

Now when a cashier asks me for my rewards card, I offer them the card and isolate the bar code they want to scan between my fingers so the scanner does not get confused by reading the wrong bar code.  A number of cashiers have complimented me on my clever idea so I thought I would share it with my readers.

Chiropractors are aware that sitting on a thick wallet can contribute to a whole host of issues ranging from scoliosis to neck pain, and I certainly feel more comfortable now that it is nearly 1/4 inch thinner.

* A reader just commented that there is "an app for that" called Stocard.  I personally don't use a smart phone, but this seems very useful.  Not sure where most folks carry their phones, but if it's in their back pocket, they will still have back health issues.