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The Most Absurd (and Expensive) Eco-Gadgets

These products drive home a question: can we consume ourselves to sustainability?
 
 
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As of 2007, the green economy accounted for an estimated $371 to $516 billion and 1.8 million to 2.4 million jobs in the U.S. With so much money at stake, businesses are eager to grab their piece of the pie. Some products, like reusable water bottles or travel mugs, are simple and affordable enough that most Americans can use them to reduce their waste from disposable cups and bottles if they choose. Other products, like solar panels, are unquestionably green but can be pricey to buy and out of the question if you’re a renter.

Unfortunately, the green craze has also given rise to greenwashing: marketing products as “green” when in fact they aren’t. Like T-shirts made from non-organic cotton (a very pesticide-intensive crop) with “green” slogans on them. Or beauty products labeled “natural” that are  nothing of the sort. And then there’s a category of eco-gadgets that represent the convergence of greenwashing and high prices, for those with big bank accounts, wonderful intentions, and little knowledge of ecology and environmentalism.

Do you want to compost without having an unsightly mess of rotting food scraps and yard waste sitting around? For a mere $249, you can buy an electric compost machine. This little gadget promises a two-gallon capacity and “no trash odors, just a mild earthy aroma.” In fact, that can be said of all compost, whether it’s made in an open pile, a worm bin, or one of the numerous non-electric compost containers sold on the market.

But other methods of composting and compost containers don’t require electric power and won’t ever break and end up in a landfill. Perhaps someone buying the little electric composter lives in a small, urban apartment with no space outside to do any other type of composting, but if that’s the case, one must also wonder what they would do with the resulting compost the machine makes.

For those who truly want to compost everything, there is the BioToi Nature Bio-Toilet, a composting toilet that sells for $52.49 at LetsGoGreen.biz. Truly, composting toilets can be a great idea, separating human waste from the larger waste stream and recapturing the nutrients to return them to the soil (perhaps for ornamental plants instead of, say, lettuce).

But this particular model is designed for outdoor use, like on a campout. It comes with disposable, compostable waste bags, sold separately for $11.76 for a package of 24 bags. Perhaps these are necessary for, say, U.N. troops in Haiti who don’t want to spread cholera, but are they the most ecofriendly option for your average campout? REI sells a little stainless steel trowel to help campers do their business outdoors by digging a hole and burying their waste. Surely, this is a more sustainable and affordable option.

Another fancy “eco” option is the Laundry Alternative Large Spin Dryer, which goes for $168.48. It may be effective and energy efficient for a dryer, but a clothesline is a more energy efficient alternative. And, like the electric composter, it will one day break or wear out and go to a landfill. Apartment dwellers or Seattle residents who cannot dry their clothes outdoors might find using a dryer is necessary, but Americans might be surprised if they saw British families hanging their clothes to dry indoors in famously rainy London.

For the gardener, there’s the Electric grow mat for $53.50. The site claims that room temperature is not enough to germinate most seeds, so gardeners ought to use the grow mat to provide extra heat. This claim is misleading. Many seeds germinate well in temperatures colder than room temperature, and very few seeds cannot germinate at room temperature, and the benefits in germination from raising them temperature slightly are minimal. For gardeners lacking a greenhouse who wish to germinate heat-loving seeds indoors, placing them in front of a sunny window does the trick quite well.

Gadgets like these abound on green products Web sites. For treehuggers who are too cold, there’s the eco portable space heater, sold for $53.50 at Greenhome.com. A more sustainable option? A sweater and a hot beverage. Or there’s an electric air purifier one can buy for $599. A cheaper, more sustainable option is actually a potted plant. And for those interested in the ice and snow melting mat for $173, just wipe your feet.

It’s true that there may be places, times and situations when each of these gadgets is absolutely necessary. Perhaps a person with massive allergies truly needs an expensive electric air purifier. And a potted plant alone might not do the trick in a hospital. Sometimes, these fancy eco-gadgets are more convenient than the greener solutions. No doubt using a dryer is more convenient than hanging one’s clothes out to dry. But they are being marketed as green on sites that claim to offer green products, and for most everyday situations, they simply do not live up to that label.

Products like these drive home a question: can we consume ourselves to sustainability? And is it possible to buy sustainability without any additional effort or knowledge on our part? It’s slightly inconvenient to postpone doing laundry on rainy days if you plan to hang it to dry outside, or to manually turn a compost pile with a pitchfork. And you don’t have to remember to water your expensive electric air purifier like you do for potted plants. But the little bit of extra effort you make to hang your clothes or water your plants can save energy and ultimately keep old, broken electric gadgets out of landfills.

Being green might require a bit more knowledge too. It’s easy to simply buy an air purifier and plug it in, but using a potted plant for that purpose requires figuring out which plants purify the air and can survive in the amount of light you can provide them. You might also need to find a plant that is non-toxic to pets. And while compost piles don’t stink when you toss the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen in them, they do stink if they have too much nitrogen and too little oxygen. It’s not terribly difficult to learn how to keep your compost from stinking, but it does require more effort than plugging in an appliance.

In some cases, going green might require one to get a little more comfortable coexisting with nature. A natural setting like a garden often involves soil, bacteria, fungi, worms, bugs, and more. While some are unpleasant or even harmful, others are beneficial. If you are truly concerned about having a pile of rotting food waste in your yard, you can buy or build a compost bin that keeps rodents (and other critters) out. And if you can get over the “yuck” factor of compost, dirt, and bugs, getting your hands dirty can be fun and educational.

Each person has different circumstances, and sometimes it’s just too difficult to make one sacrifice or another in order to go green. Some people cannot get to work without a car or cannot use energy efficient fluorescent lights without getting migraines. Some people lack the space for a garden or lack access to affordable, organic food. But for those who do have the resources and the desire to go green in a big way, it appears impossible to do so without a minimum amount of knowledge and effort. Some items marketed as green might be less green than their obvious alternatives, and they might even not be green at all.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."

 
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