The Uncomfortable Truth Behind Eco-gadgets

I should start this article with a quick confession – I’m a geek and a recovering gadget-aholic. I’m instantly drawn to anything that promises to make my life easier, and even more so if it’s a bit clever and eco-friendly, and ideally also free.

But so many of the things that promise to do so don’t and aren’t. There are exceptions, but increasingly I’m finding that they’re software rather than physical products – I use Firefox as a web browser partly because it’s open source but more so because of the plug-ins that make my online experience just that little bit more user-friendly.

My smartphone is the one piece of hardware that I’ve bought in the last five years that has truly made my life easier – I can check my e-mails and read the news on the way to work, update my (single) calendar from anywhere, write paperless to do and shopping lists, and that’s before we get into the wonderful world of downloadable applications . But it really is an exception, and before too long I’ll be upgrading again and it’ll find its way into the growing mountain of electronic waste awaiting recycling.

So until software becomes an acceptable present beyond the confines of the geek world, perhaps by coming in delightful digital wrapping paper, the challenge of buying gifts will remain fraught with pitfalls for those of us who want to give a loved one something eco-friendly that will last a little bit longer than the old stalwart of FairTrade chocolate.

Recently, and inspired by glowing coverage in the Observer, my partner and I bought a little water-saving gadget as a present for my parents, and bought ourselves one to give it a try too. The gadget in question is the WaterPebble (, and it’s fair to say that the idea behind it does indeed seem clever, original, and eco-friendly.

You place the pebble in your shower and the first time you shower it takes a measure of the amount of water you use. It then uses that as the baseline for reducing your future water use by flashing a traffic light of LEDs to warn you when you should be finishing, and gradually reducing your allowance over time. The claim is that, as well as just saving water, reducing an average shower from using 22.5 litres to 18 litres of water and reducing the temperature from 40°C to 37°C can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from showering by one third. But there’s a hidden carbon cost here, and I’ll return to it in a minute.

Behaviour Change
However, first, it’s useful to understand something about the science of behaviour change – the methods that we can employ to help reduce our environmental impact. How we achieve behaviour change, by using any of the multitude of tools we have at our disposal, is a massive issue for anyone with an interest in green issues. To put it simply, if we don’t achieve it, and do so across all aspects of our daily lives and all sections of society, then we can forget about winning the fight against climate change.

It’s also often a process rather than a single step, although again there are exceptions – getting rid of a car or topping up your loft insulation are single steps – but they are still the results of an on-going process of awareness-raising.

I like to think of behaviour change as something that requires a thought process that must go from conscious to sub-conscious, and then to unconscious.

Think about learning to switch off lights. First it takes a conscious effort to remember to hit the switch when leaving a room. It becomes a sub-conscious behaviour when you’re doing it most of the time, but every now and then you don’t do it and your conscience is pricked to go back to the switch. Eventually, and after some time (if at all), it becomes an unconscious behaviour and lights seem to go off without you having touched the switch at all.
But the big problem here is the length of time involved and how long a behaviour change will last (also known as its ‘stickiness’). Anyone who’s involved with a community behaviour change project will know that this is critical to producing a justifiable estimate of the carbon emissions savings attributable to it, and this is where things get interesting, difficult, and at times can become a bit of a wake up call.
The effects of a single intervention, for example providing energy saving advice, can be reasonably expected to last 3 to 6 months. After this many peoples’ behaviour will gradually revert back to normal or near-normal. Regular re-enforcement can extend that period, perhaps indefinitely, but it needs to be well-planned and maintained over a long period, ideally several years or more.

It may also result in unintended consequences that lead to lower emissions savings than predicted, or lead to higher emissions from other behaviours.

There are many examples of these but two of the best known are the findings that the emissions savings from upgrading homes to more energy efficient heating systems can be almost negated as occupants use the money saved to improve their comfort levels [1]; and a study that found that the savings from using low-flow shower heads were much lower than expected as the users, believing themselves to be on the moral high ground of helping save the environment, simply showered for longer [2].
These are real findings, published in serious scientific journals, and there’s a lot more out there. Or if you don’t want to wade through the literature just look around you when you walk down the road on a day when recycling is being collected and note the number of people who proudly put out their green boxes at the end of driveways with two cars standing on them. It’s an uncomfortable truth that many of those who parade their environmentally-friendliness offset these behaviours in other ways. It’s become a media stereotype and it may be hard to swallow, but it does us no good at all if we remain complicit in the charade.
But perhaps the biggest charade of all is green consumerism, which brings us nicely back to the pebble. For now, let’s accept that there are some products that almost all of us buy, where there is a role for green consumerism – opting for recycled toilet paper is a good example – but we also buy a lot that we don’t really need and wouldn’t really miss. They all come with a hidden cost in the form of the emissions from producing them, getting them to us, and disposing of them afterwards. This is known as their ’embodied emissions’ and it’s important because it accounts for much of the emissions we’re responsible for as individuals.
This is where the credentials of the pebble begin to look a bit shaky, and I should add that it’s only one of the plethora of ‘eco-gadgets’ that share this failing. In the case of the pebble, what alerted me to this, was the lifespan of its non-replaceable battery, which the instructions say is about 6 months.

Given this lifespan, and assuming it’s not replaced, the stickiness of any behaviour change attributable to it is likely to be limited. After this it can be posted back to the manufacturer for recycling (although how many people will do this is at least questionable) but either way it will end up in the waste stream.

The emissions embodied in electronic goods tend to be high, and the UK’s capacity for recycling electronic waste remains limited. Historically much has been dumped in the developing world, and whilst this trade has recently been made illegal by the EU the grey market of products being exported for ‘re-use’ remains healthy and has become a major global problem.
So having bought the pebble and given it a trial I have to admit that I regret giving into my gadget addiction. Did it change my showering behaviour? In all honesty, no, but then my partner and I try to adopt a more fun way of saving water (sharing showers) so it might well work for others. But if you’re serious about making this behaviour change, instead of buying a pebble, why not use what you already have and set an alarm, place it well out of reach of the shower and then make a conscious effort to reduce your time allowance every few days and see how short you can reduce it to?

Because on a day-to-day basis there’s only one behaviour change we can make to really reduce those embodied emissions – buy less.

1. Hong, H. S., Oreszczyn, T., & Ridley, I., (2006). ‘The impact of energy efficient refurbishment on the space heating fuel consumption of English dwellings.’ Energy and Buildings, 2006, Vol. 38, pp. 1171-1181.
2. Meier, A.K., (1997). ‘Observed savings from appliance efficiency standards.’ Energy and Buildings, 1997, 26, pp. 111-117.

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Keith Baker

, I grew up in South Wales, where I started trying to make a bit of a difference to the environment as a conservation volunteer with my school at the tender age of 11. Then since finishing my first degree (in environmental science) at Sussex University in Brighton I’ve hopped about the universities of the UK and the world a bit, finishing off with a Ph.D in Domestic Energy Consumption from De Montfort in Leicester. Hardly the best university in the world but a fantastically multi-cultural place to live, and home to a community of campaigners who carry on the city’s political tradition of causing trouble. Indeed although the students of its second university may not be known for living up to it, the choice of name for the university is rather apt for the community it serves. I’ve been living in Edinburgh for about two and a half years now, where I’ve been working as a researcher and campaigning in my spare time, and to be honest I’m a little disappointed. Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and sits in an equally beautiful landscape, so you would think that people at all levels of society would be being inspired to work hard to preserve the environment, globally as well as locally. Whilst some of my articles will hopefully dispel the myths around ‘eco-friendly’ products, I’ll also be discussing bigger problems that we all contribute to, knowingly or otherwise. These will be sprinkled with greenwash pet-hates such as carbon capture and storage, the media’s coverage of climate change and other scientific matters, and the lack of real progress to improve the energy efficiency of housing – I’m sat writing this in the spare room of a modern flat with a thick top and jumper on and it’s still freezing! . I’ve spent much of my time working with other campaigners who, shall we say, wear green sleeves and red shirts. It tends to nurture the rebellious streak, but that’s a big part of what makes me me. Sometimes it takes asking the most awkward questions to ferret out the truth. I’m hoping that, with your help and vigilance, we might even win the odd victory from this little corner of the internet.

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