How Green is Wearable Tech?

We raised questions about the GreenICT implications of wearable technology four years ago. There seems to have been little effort made by wearable tech creators since then to address sustainability issue. A recent article from battery recycler Call2Recycle again sounds the warning.

CEO Carl Smith wrote about wearable tech on GreenBiz in April 2017. "While the products vary widely, wearable technologies have one thing in common. Users depend on battery power to use the devices wherever they go. Batteries are incorporated into products using glue or through full integration into the products’ frames. This design approach reduces manufacturing costs and decreases the size and weight of the end product, a huge advantage for the user. But the design also makes it virtually impossible to remove the batteries and successfully reclaim the constituent metals. It is much more difficult to detach and disassemble the technology from a garment or product than from a cell phone or power tool."

Smith ties this to a larger trend in personal technology. "Product design is becoming increasingly disconnected from how we manage the product’s components, such as batteries, at end-of-life...At a time that manufacturers finally have learned to incorporate recycled materials into their products, the ability to recycle these materials is being reduced. This doesn’t just apply to the wearable technology market. Consumer groups openly have complained about how difficult it is to disassemble, reuse and recycle electronic devices from Apple, Samsung and Microsoft based on their product design features. "

Smith's conclusion is not optimistic. "Until market conditions change and products are designed to take [labeling, disassembly and contamination] factors into account, it will not be profitable for the recycling industry to invest its resources in recycling wearable technologies to retrieve the component metals."

Original Post

Wearable tech is of interest to Green ICT because it can drive miniaturization and energy efficient. Miniaturization can reduce resource consumption in the creation of ICT gear and reduce e-waste in its disposal. Miniaturization combined with energy-efficiency can enable a host of applications ranging from "smart building" sensors to compact assistive technology. Is more wearable tech all positive? We look at a number of global trends and technologies.

Telecommunication equipment manufacturer Cisco reported in February 2014, "By 2018, we estimate that, there will be 177 million wearable devices globally, growing eight-fold from 22 million in 2013 at a CAGR of 52 percent...Regionally, North America will lead ...with a 42 percent share in 2013 going to 34 percent by 2018. Other regions with significant share include Western Europe with 25 percent share in 2013, growing to 26 percent by 2018, and Asia Pacific with 21 percent share, growing to 25 percent by 2018. The wearables category will have a tangible impact on mobile traffic, because even without embedded cellular connectivity, they can connect to mobile networks through smartphones. Globally, traffic from wearables will account for 0.5 percent of smartphone traffic by 2018. Globally, traffic from wearable devices will grow 36-fold from [1.7 petabytes per month in] 2013 to 61 petabytes per month by 2018 (CAGR 105 percent). Globally, traffic from wearable devices will account for 0.4 percent of total mobile data traffic by 2018, compared to 0.1 percent at the end of 2013."

One technology linked to wearable tech is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), a wireless protocol designed to let devices perform near-field communication with a low battery drain. I bought my first wearable BLE product - a heart rate sensor - in 2013. Its BLE feature lets me use my iPhone 5 as a monitor and recorder, eliminating the need for another piece of e-gear - a watch-like monitoring unit.

Yet Apple is working on a a smart watch, as are others. So will I need a high tech watch after all?

This is the potential downside of wearable tech: more e-gear that we never knew we needed!

The upside is more innovation. UK _Connect's Energy Harvesting SIG studied Apple's smart watch patent: "…the battery will be assisted by a kinetic energy gathering component and by ambient light energy collectors as well as a sensor which can detect whether the watch is flat or curled. This suggests that the device will work by harvesting energy from movement, such as the motion of the user's arms, only coming out of standby mode when a sensor detects the device has been rotated to face a certain way. Additionally, the use of an AMOLED (active matrix light emitting diode) display can help, since it allows individual pixels to be turned off. For instance enabling only the parts facing the owner's eyes to be activated." (
Apple's patent application for "Bi-Stable Spring with Flexible Display")

Ecouterre.com reported in June 2012 on "…an ultrathin crystal chip that converts footfalls into electricity. Developed by Anthony Mutua, a recent graduate of Mombasa Polytechnic University College, the device generates a charge large enough to power a cellphone when it’s subjected to pressure, say from the act of walking or running. The technology is so promising, in fact, that Kenya’s National Council of Science and Technology, which funded Mutua’s prototype, is bankrolling its commercial production." IDG reported in October 2013 that commercialization is underway. "Through his company, HATUA TECHNOLOGIES, the mass production phase has begun after Mutua secured partial funding from the Kenya National Council of Science and Technology...This is a green energy technology that will help reduce carbon footprints from the diesel engines or car batteries that are used to charge the phones."

"Kinetic energy gathering", "ambient light energy", and "footfalls into electricity" are examples of Ambient Energy Harvesting, a growing source of clean power for devices.