In the latest issue of HackSpace magazine, Hackster’s Lead Hardware Nerd shows Andrew Gregory how not to create a load of e-waste.
As the Lead Hardware Nerd at Hackster.io, Alex Glow has an insider’s view of the technology that’s coming down the rails at us in the near future. Happily, she also makes it her business to share that knowledge, supporting a community of almost two million hardware tinkerers, inventors, and improvers. She’s also the brains behind a good few projects herself: she’s sent music into space, was an early adopter of the companion robot, makes projects with LEDs and PCBs, and… well, whatever she feels like really.
Which made Alex think: how do I keep doing all this, without generating a load of e-waste, burning a ton of carbon, and sending a load of 3D plastic into landfills? The result of this line of questioning is green-ee.com, a new (but already extensive) resource for the discerning maker who doesn’t want to turn Earth into a fiery rubbish bin. Read on for more!
You revel in the glorious job title of Lead Hardware Nerd. What does that entail?
I’ve made up that job title, obviously. I was the first employee at Hackster, which is a community of hardware developers that has been growing really fast and is now very large – we’ve got almost two million members. I started out as the community manager, someone who was drawing people to the site by reaching out to people finding cool projects and inviting people to join. And I was also publishing my own projects on there.
At the time, I was working for a company called Pinocchio as their maker in residence. And they’re basically a mesh network for Arduino that has since pivoted and become Filament, which is like an industrial version. I was publishing projects for Pinocchio and working at Hackster at the same time. After a couple of years, our co-founder was like, ‘We should do videos!’ And I was like, ‘Yes! I’ll do one a month!’ And he was like, ‘How about one a week?’ I’d never done video before, so the early ones are extremely amateurish – I like to think that I’ve gotten better over the years. I think that cringing at your earlier work is a great way to see that you’ve grown.
There’s also this thing that Ira Glass calls the taste gap – where you want to create things, and you have a certain sense of taste, but you also know that what you’re making right now is kind of crappy.
Anyway, what I do day to day is I make videos introducing people to new technologies that they can use to make electronics, interview people who are doing awesome stuff with electronics, and build projects and write tutorials. I also give talks and run events sometimes. [Recently], for example, I was at Embedded Vision Summit, just running around with a camera.
You must see loads of interesting projects on a day-to-day basis. What are the cool kids working on nowadays?
The cool kids are working on Green EE, as I started calling it because I haven’t got a better name: building technology in a sustainable way. Technology that is helpful and thoughtful.
There’s so much interesting stuff, but the more frivolous answer is that I think there’s a lot of cool stuff going on with keyboards, and a lot of cool stuff with PCB art. There’s also a growing interest in companion bots – of course, I’m paying attention to that.
But yeah, I really am excited about the stuff that people are doing with more sustainable technology. And there are two aspects to that: there’s building things in a sustainable way, and then there’s thinking about what to build – for anything to be truly sustainable, it’s got to be helpful and not just built as a learning exercise. There’s plenty of value in building things to learn –
that’s how we get people excited to build things that are more helpful. Once you get excited about using your skills and passion to help the world, then you can think about building things specifically for good purposes. My work at Hackster is itself part of this. I love it because it’s a worldwide community sharing open-source designs for electronics, spreading hardware knowledge, and I frequently get to promote projects that combat poaching, detect forest fires, and help in other ways!
So how do you make your projects more sustainable? We’re running out of resources you know.
There are some really obvious ways around this. iFixit (which is an amazing resource), has this great line: ‘the most sustainable phone is the one already in your pocket’. So really, thinking about whether you build the thing in the first place, I think, is the first step.
Once you get into the nuts and bolts of it, things like using lead-free solder, researching what materials work for your use case, and using recycled or biodegradable materials. There’s some really amazing work going on with PCB substrates. Neither of these is ready yet for public consumption, but Jiva Materials is doing a cellulose-based PCB substrate, so it’s not only recyclable and biodegradable, but it’s easier to peel-off the components and the traces and things. Instead of having to peel that stuff off manually or by machine, you can just degrade out the central substrate and it all just falls apart, which I think is really cool.
There’s also one that’s based on chitin from shrimp shells. Shrimp shells are a waste product; they take these and grind them up, and they turn the chitin in them into PCB substrate. This project was at a very early stage when I saw it, and I don’t know if they have actually done it yet. But ideas like that, I think, are really cool.
As for practical advice for the here and now, using cardboard to prototype – it’s cheap, recyclable, and it’s a waste product. And there are also considerations of how you power the thing you’ve built. I’ve gotten fascinated by this joule thief circuit. It allows you to power low-power projects from a supposedly dead battery. It uses a feedback loop building up a magnetic field in a ferrite toroid, with the low power that you’re drawing from the battery over time, and decomposes rapidly and dumps all that magnetic energy back into the circuit as electrical energy and adds that to the power from the battery, and therefore is able to power your little LED or whatever for a short burst – then it goes back into the building-up phase.
Obviously, there’s a lot of cool LED stuff that we can do with a circuit like that – bike lights, for example. That’s an added bonus – a project that helps people stay
safe at night on a sustainable method of transportation. But then, you can’t use that to power things like microcontrollers, unless you have some kind of smoothing.
People have also built circuits for this that allow you to charge, for example, a five-volt battery off of it, and then you can use that to power your project. So I think that power systems are very interesting. There’s a laptop called the MNT Reform that uses a different type of battery – it uses lithium iron phosphate chemistry, which is less harmful [than standard battery tech]. It doesn’t use cobalt, which is a conflict mineral. It doesn’t have as much capacity, but it has more cycles, so it’s better in some ways – it’s a trade-off.
Then I suppose you can also make hardware more sustainable by making it easier to repair when it breaks.
Exactly. iFixit has guidelines for designing your product so that it can be easily repaired. So in
that way, you’re sort of making it more sustainable.
I gave a talk a few years ago about what I called open-ish hardware, which is sort of the same idea as using screws instead of adhesives, and doing what some companies do, which is abrade the ID markings off components so that users can’t replace them. That’s obviously an anti-repair, hostile thing – we can sort of make choices that are better.
There’s a lot of really cool stuff going on with updating older technology, like Joey Castillo’s sensor watch. So, if you have an old Casio F-91W, you can put a new world in it.
Transparent electronics are having a comeback right now. You know, the whole 1990s revival. And I think that’s really cool as well. It obviously helps people who want to learn about electronics, but it also helps those who want to repair stuff, because you can see inside.
I saw a talk you did in which you said that the degradation of the environment wasn’t our fault, but it is our responsibility. What do you mean by that?
I love the idea of building electronics, and I want to spend my life doing that. Though, there are lots of other things I love, too. A lot of the things that we have are part of our human lifestyles nowadays – like [mobile] phones, for example, [they’re made] in a way that’s really harmful. We also know that a lot of our clothes are produced in damaging ways. However, we do have choices that we can make, depending on our budget, our level of privilege, and our access to those choices. For example, it’s easier for someone with the means to shop organic or support local businesses, [because they’ll] pay a premium for that.
Newer technologies that are designed with an eye on sustainability and fair labour conditions are going to cost more, just because they’re new, or they’re harder to source, or like, you have to pay people a living wage. Anyway, these choices are often hard to make and hard to adopt. And they require extra research because they’re not as widely distributed. And you know, there aren’t big corporations putting out free tutorials on this stuff, because that’s not what benefits them. And so we live in this ecosystem where it’s hard to make good choices, and those choices are sometimes just made for us. But often, we’re told that the solution is personal action. And that can be really demoralising for a couple of reasons, obviously, because on one level, it’s hard to see your individual impacts when you can’t see an immediate change from that. It starts to feel like, what’s the point? It’s not actually changing anything. But that’s designed into the system as well. As we’ve seen with BP [which invented the concept of the personal carbon footprint], there’s a reason that an individual person taking one fewer car journey per year doesn’t necessarily show up at all.
A lot of this stuff is focused on choices that huge corporations are making, and our leaders or governmental leaders are making when they could make better choices, but the focus has been diverted onto us as individuals. And so, we’re being made the patsies in their desire to not change. If we can release ourselves from that guilt, that will make change more possible.
Take, for example, when you’re being shamed, or being made to feel guilty: for some people that’s motivating, and for others, it’s just not. We have enough of a problem with mental health right now, I don’t think we need to add to that when we don’t need to, and it’s not helpful, and it’s not true. We have power to change the conversation, and to make choices, and spread that information and use our own experiments, share what we’ve learned, and make that accessible to everyone.
The fact that we have that power is kind of amazing. And then the more that we share with people who are coming up, like young people, students, people who are going to be building stuff tomorrow, as well as today – those are the people who are going to be in the companies tomorrow, and be able to have this knowledge and provide a starting point to make better choices for the companies.
Obviously, we’re all still beholden to whoever’s above us. For example, at Amazon, workers have advocated time and time again for better practices. And time and time again, the shareholders have shut them down. There’s only so much that you can do. But we can build alternatives so that people are able to create different options for others to choose. And then there’s people who can boost the signal… everyone has a certain thing that they can do, you know – some people are developers; they can build these options. Some people work with hardware; they can build those options. Some people have access to funding, while others have access to publicity and other stuff.
And in that way, we can give people more choice, make them feel more empowered and stop guilting ourselves, but also realise that we have this power. It’s beautiful.
So is that what you’re hoping to achieve with Green-EE.com? More power, more choice, more information?
Absolutely. I’ve been asking myself the question, ‘How could I, in good conscience, start something where I’m selling electronic things and not feel like I’m being a jerk?’ And my limbic brain comes back with the answer that the best idea is to just not build it, because you’re contributing to the problem by building stuff. But I want to try and look deeper and turn this into something that we’re all learning together. I was amazed that a resource like this doesn’t already exist, honestly. It came from this talk for the Open Hardware Summit. The first couple of months that I was working on the talk, I was asking people in climate action, tech, and other communities, ‘if this is repeating someone else’s work, let me know. And I’ll just, like, link to that’. And there was no response.
I still haven’t come across anything that’s like this project, but I still think it must be out there. If there are more [projects] like this, I would love to hear about them. iFixit has a lot of incredible resources, but that is specifically focused on repair, which is just one very important aspect of this. Then there’s things like auto-certification, and things like open-source designs for assembly and stuff, and information on the business side. And there’s a huge amount of content from people developing websites on like, green or web dev. And that’s really interesting. And I’ve sort of put some of that on the site as well. The goal is to just provide a starting point for people and link out to a lot of the stuff that already exists out there – it’s just a matter of making it more accessible. It’s me in the present day building something that I will find useful in the future, and that I would have found useful a few years ago.
Are you optimistic that people are awake to doing the right thing?
There’s that William Gibson quote: ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’. We have horribly wasteful things, like dumping potatoes into the sea to preserve the market demands. But there’s a lot of exciting things going on as well; things people are doing in collaborating with other species. There’s a lot of work happening with fungi, and how you can use them for bioremediation when there are oil spills or heavy metals. And you can use them for building materials, like self-healing construction materials. I wish that I liked eating mushrooms, because I just hate them. But I love them in every other way – I think they’re fascinating.
There’s a building in Hamburg that is partially powered by these algae panels on its exterior, which is incredible. People are using algae for producing oxygen and eating carbon dioxide – which is what the ocean does, right? I think there’s a lot of promise in the idea of biomimicry, where we’re looking at the solutions that the Earth already uses for these things and emulating those. I’m not an expert – I’m just trying to find these things out and share as I go.