All That Glitters Isn't Green

Solar bags and 'green telephones' are just some of the latest gadgets riding the environmental wave. But do they really help save the planet?

It's not only about reusable bags and energy-efficient lightbulbs anymore. There are more sophisticated gadgets out there, pretending to make the world greener and reduce the damage man does to the environment. Mobile phone manufacturers, for example, unveiled "green telephones" last year, such as the Blue Earth from Samsung - made from recycled bottles and recharged via solar energy. LG and Sharp also revealed green phones of their own.

Last month Sony Ericsson's Naite model arrived in Israel; its manufacturer says it "is made of recycled plastic, comes in environment-friendly packaging, is recharged by means of a low-tension charger and includes applications that help users take green decisions in everyday life." The importer, Baras Electra, has also promised to donate a certain sum to the Jewish National Fund for every Naite phone sold.

Are products like these for real, or do they simply serve to extract more money from our pockets for recycled plastic?

Gili Sofer of the environmental site (in Hebrew) is not so enthusiastic. "You have to recognize the environmental costs of mobile phones," he says, "and you should know that your old mobile phone is about to pollute groundwater in Africa, or maybe the coastal aquifer here. The moment it stops being a phone it becomes a hunk of terrible metals. The only thing more polluting is perhaps batteries."

Niels Kramer of Kibbutz Netzer Sereni, who immigrated to Israel from Holland, runs the online ecological shop (also in Hebrew). He describes on the site how he and his wife and son run the shop from home in accordance with ecological principles, and has said in an interview that one needn't make do only with products from recycled materials.

At his shop, and elsewhere, quite a number of gadgets that use sunlight or wind energy to charge your laptop or mobile phone can be found. Voltaic solar bags, for example, make it possible to recharge nearly any portable device. Kramer himself walks around with a bag that enables him to keep his laptop charged without having to look for the nearest electrical socket.

"The rule of thumb is that the bag's battery pack stores enough energy for one and a half computer batteries," he says. As for the possibility that the solar panels on the bag will become overheated, he promises there is no need to worry that they will cause burns.

Bicycle lovers who want to recharge their MP3 player or mobile phone while in motion, can try out the HYmini renewable power source - which with 20 minutes of cycling can provide your iPod with one hour of play time, or your phone with six minutes of talking time. However, Kramer explains that this product is in fact less successful for day-to-day use, and is more practical on long biking trips.

Kramer became involved in the ecological field after having read the book "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. "The moment you manufacture [something]," Kramer says, "you have to think about what will happen to the product after you throw it away - it has to be returned for biological recycling or repurposing."

In this sense, recycling plastic bottles - apparently the most common environmental initiative in Israel - is problematic because it enables only a single stage of recycling.

Gili Sofer suggests simple methods for anyone who wants to use fewer resources and to save energy. For example, turn off the computer entirely, don't just "put it to sleep."

"Do you know what an ecological gadget is?" he asks, and then immediately answers his own question. "You know that power strip, the one with a switch? That's an ecological gadget - flipping the switch and turns off everything that's plugged into it, including a modem and a router.

"We must separate from the culture of 'use and dispose' - when the computer technician says, 'Forget it, there's nothing to fix,' and you say, 'Okay we'll buy a new one.'" Instead of that, Sofer recommends "every so often formatting your computer, instead of just saying 'the computer is too slow.'"

The same holds true for other areas. Kramer says there are many gadgets whose purpose is to develop awareness as well as educate users on how to save energy and use appliances sensibly. One good example is the Fuelmizer, which teaches economical driving with respect to fuel consumption by avoiding excess acceleration and breaking. According to Kramer, the savings can range from 5 percent to 15 percent or more in fuel consumption; and for companies or large organizations, such amounts can be significant. Similar gadgets for water and electricity consumption are also out there.

According to Eyal Biger of the Good Energy Initiative (, among the most ecological gadgets found in Israel today are the train and the water purification plants, far more so than the things we hear about.

Biger is involved in the development of a device that would monitor domestic electricity consumption - the Meter-o-Watt - which attaches to the fuse box, shows consumption figures in a clear way and then translates them into payment sums. He became a well-known figure several years ago after adapting his car to run on bio-fuel - in other words, used cooking oil. He was also involved in the human generator device, which generates electricity by means of a huge pedaling mechanism used during "Earth Hour" at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.

Ultimately, everyone agrees that the savings achieved through initiatives and gadgets is tiny, if anything. It's even possible that the concern for the green color of gadgets only diverts attention from the really important issues.

Biger relates that as an ecological advisor he has come across many companies interested only in the media attention garnered when green flags are waved. The only thing that can encourage companies to make significant energy cutbacks is the possibility that this will also save them money, he says. He also considers Shai Agassi's electric car initiative nothing more than another green gadget. Maybe the car will be electric, he says, but when that electricity comes from a polluting coal power station, the benefit will be nil.

According to Sofer, "We need to understand that if you've upgraded, you've polluted. Even recycling itself causes damage to the environment."

"We can't pay pennies for expensive products," Kramer adds, "because somebody along the way pays for this, be it the worker in China or the price paid by the environment and the planet."

"The world is busy with nonsense," Biger says. "In the area of environmental quality they get excited about small and glittery technological things that have a green label stuck to them. Maybe they do save something, but they aren't making a cultural change. I myself live, sell and earn a living from some of these nonsensical things. I hope that at least the gadgets are opening people's minds and hearts. But they are simply part of a comprehensive worldview, which for some reason to this day people aren't adopting."