Every company and every industry needs a green plan. These efforts are about lowering emissions, shrinking carbon footprints and reducing the environmental impact of operations.
But how can this actually be done? Sustainable technology is one of the key tools in these efforts.
Let’s take a closer look at exactly what sustainable technology is, how it is currently being used, and the challenges around its implementation.
What Is Sustainability?
The concept of sustainability is intuitive when you consider the original meaning of the word, but is is perhaps too often boiled down to lowering carbon footprint.
Sustainability concerns practices that are sustainable, viable in the long term because they do not cause undue environmental damage. The inference here is, of course, that much of the way society operates at present is not sustainable.
What Is Sustainable Technology?
Sustainable technology is that which can aid in improving the environmental impact of societies, companies and households. It can involve reducing the carbon footprint of the tasks in which it is involved, or be made using greener techniques.
Or, ideally, it can do both.
Sustainable technology is found at all levels of green projects and policy. On a small level, there are “greener” phone companies like Fairphone. At the other end of the scale, green technologies are used across agriculture and city planning to have a much wider impact.
Sustainable Technology Examples
Look close at just about any industry and you’ll find sustainable technology. It’s used in homes, in manufacturing, in consumer tech, agriculture, fashion and healthcare.
One example of sustainable technology has already been mentioned, Fairphone’s smartphones. They use removable batteries to avoid e-waste. They are made with 70% recycled or “fair” materials, including “recycled aluminium, tin, rare earth elements, nickel, zinc, copper, magnesium, indium, and plastics.” Fairphone promises unusually long software support, to ensure its phones can be used safely and securely for many years.
In August the company claimed the Fairphone 5 was “most sustainable phone in the world right now.” The Fairphone 5 still has an environmental impact, but seeking to minimize it is admirable.
In agriculture, sustainable technology is used to monitor the water level and health of crops, in order to increase yield and optimize water usage. Drones can also be used to monitor crop health with cameras and machine learning-based vision AI. Drones can even apply fertilizer. These can have a much lower carbon impact than tractors, and do not cause damage to the underlying soil like a seven ton piece of heavy machinery will.
In architecture and house-building, future-looking sustainable technologies include systems that harvest rainwater for use as, for example, toilet flushing liquid. Electrochromic glass, which darkens to respond to outside conditions, can drastically reduce the energy consumption of HVAC systems.
Then, of course, there are more familiar sustainability technologies like solar panels, used in 3.7% of US homes in 2020 according to Consumer Affairs. Recycled materials can also be used for building insulation, as a rather more simple example of textiles technology in action.
In healthcare, electronic health records (EHRs) are used to obviate the need for paper documentation, while also making the information far easier to transmit between healthcare providers. Telemedicine, remote appointments held over the phone or a webcam, naturally result in lower carbon emissions — even if an over-reliance on them is itself contentious.
Fashion, too, an area with a checkered past and present in this area, makes good use of sustainable tech. There are virtual try-on services, which can dramatically reduce returns and waste. These virtual representations of clothing can also be used in the retail buying process, avoiding the need to so many physical samples to be ferried about.
There are now also many more eco-friendly alternatives to polyester in the manufacture of clothing. Polyester will eventually end up sitting in a landfill for decades as it is not biodegradable. Bamboo, hemp, TENCEL and soy cashmere have all reached a level of development where they are perfectly suitable for use in clothing.
In city infrastructure, sustainable technology is used in street lighting, along with a switch to LED lighting — also referred to as solid state lighting (SSL) — which consumes far less energy, smart sensors can alter the level based on the ambient light or even how busy the area is.
City-level sustainable tech also has some responsibility in fostering the transition from the combustion engine to electrified transport. That means infrastructure for charging of EVs, as well as increased use of electrified public transport vehicles, such as buses.
Sustainable Technology Benefits
The surface benefit of sustainable technology is in reducing harmful environmental impacts. But this can also lead to better efficiency, lower costs and reduced use of water in some cases.
Sustainable technology can also make environments more pleasant places to be. That can have a particular impact in cities that double as tourists destinations, in work places, and even ordinary homes.
In some countries there are also tax benefits to adopting sustainable tech. It is often the smart fiscal move in the medium to long term.
Sustainable Technology Challenges
Sustainable technology often involves increased use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and devices, which are ideal for optimizing efficiency in many areas. But these come with security challenges of their own.
Once a system becomes connected over the web, it is on some level at risk of being compromised or hacked.
This tech also has its own energy footprint, meaning a practical and dispassionate approach is required to ensure the overall benefits are as compelling as they may initially appear. Similarly, sustainable technology can have an e-waste issue, particularly if it relies on IoT sensors with a limited functional life.
A 2022 study published in Nature also examined inequality issues that could potentially be exacerbated through the deployment of sustainable tech.
What Is The Future Of Sustainable Technology?
Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is one of the more exciting avenues for further research and development. In November 2023, Virgin Atlantic flew a plane from London to New York powered by SAF.
It is produced using cooking oils and recycled carbon, and other waste products. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) suggests it can reduce aviation’s fuel carbon footprint by as much as 80%. However, as Aviation Week noted in 2022, SAF is relatively expensive to produce and demand could easily outstrip supply.
As with any kind of sustainable technology, the realities of employing it in a real-world situation need to be considered.
The use of AI in healthcare is likely to bring dramatic results sooner than SAF, employing its skills in pattern recognition to search for anomalies in scans. It’s a tangential candidate as sustainability tech, for its potential to significantly improve efficiency in diagnostics.
While some see humans’ departure from their natural ways of living as a key issue behind our impact on the environment, at this stage we have to rely on technology to ameliorate the problem.
Sustainable tech can help temper the more profligate aspects of the workings of society, and is a critical tool in green efforts at all scales.