Rob Appleby has a bold vision for the future of conservation technology: What if we could learn to see our tools through the lens of sustainability and break free of the mentality that the newest innovation is always best? In this interview between Rob Appleby and Ellie Warren, we discuss the importance of DIY, recycling, and sharing tools in order to make our community more sustainable.
Out with the New, In with the Old
By Rob Appleby and Ellie Warren
We all love our new tech tools. Experimenting with new innovations (and hopefully finding something that works perfectly for you and your projects’ needs) is undeniably one of the coolest things about working in the conservation technology field, and for good reason. In fact, WILDLABS wouldn’t exist if not for the rapid evolution of tech tools and the constant need to learn new skills, adapt to new features and functions, and find ways to make our technology work as effectively as possible.
But like everything else in the world, new conservation technology comes with a trade-off - a recurring theme in this series. For every new tool we acquire, an old tool becomes obsolete and goes into storage, or to a landfill, replaced by a tool that may work better and check the boxes on all your specific needs, but that inevitably required many unsustainable resources throughout its development and supply chain cycle in order to reach you.
In the quest to find practical and actionable steps that the conservation tech community can take to improve the sustainability of our work, concrete answers were scarce. But Rob Appleby has ideas that every one of us can put into practice right now with our own tech tools, if we’re willing to uncouple our work from the inherent coolness of the newest and shiniest gadgets.
What if we made an effort to repair tools that still have potential life left in them? To recycle components from even older tools and give them new life inside of other tools that could use a boost? What if we challenged ourselves to no longer see tools as disposable, but as resources that should be used as efficiently and fully as possible? How would conservation technology as a field change if we adopted that mindset?
“I was digging around at my old university lab,” says Rob, “and I kept finding all this old discarded equipment, things like telemetry collars that no one was using. And I thought, these have bits and pieces that could still be recycled and reused, and I actually ended up experimenting with that. I stripped a whole bunch of transmitters out of these old collars, and we ended up using them in test collars that people could try without relying on brand-new tools.” The idea sounds simple enough - consider what components inside of obsolete tools could be applied to something new that others (or yourself) can use. If you develop the technical skills to strip tools and understand how components fit together, it’s perfectly doable!
“Too often, people have this ‘throw it away’ mentality about things that aren’t even broken. They’re easily fixable, or they’re just old, or people are bored with using the same old thing and want a change. And I don’t think that’s a worldview that conservationists should be getting behind,” says Rob. “We should be encouraging people to see the long-term value in these tools that can still work perfectly well. And part of that involves encouraging people to share.”
“We should be encouraging people to see the long-term value in these tools that can still work perfectly well. And part of that involves encouraging people to share.”
Rob is a big supporter of what shouldn’t be a radical idea, but somehow manages to still come across as revolutionary in our consumerism-driven society: giving tools away. “If you’re not going to use old camera traps and they’ll be sitting in storage forever, why not give them to students to train and learn? Or give them to people who can use them to practice DIYs and repairs themselves.” Envisioning the reach of WILDLABS’ global community, Rob emphasizes just how many tech tools are out there going unused, how many people on a daily basis are looking for tools and components for their work, and how many people with tools to share are already connected through our platform. “We have the community already, we just need to help each other instead of always turning to the solution of buying something straight away.”
So how can a community learn to repair and recycle tools for themselves? The idea may be a hard sell; after all, that technical barrier can be intimidating, especially for someone who has never done a teardown or DIYed a tool before. But as someone who taught himself to strip tools and repair them himself, Rob can confidently say that, while it may be intimidating at first, it’s an easier skill to acquire than you’d think! “There are really good YouTube tutorials out there to walk you through these things. I watch those regularly for tips and tricks. And learning from teardown videos so you can get the experience of taking things apart and putting them back together, and understanding how everything inside of your tools works together.”
And if you’re worried about making mistakes, Rob assures potential DIYers that it’s all part of the process. “Just struggling to see how well you know your own tools inside and out is going to give you the ability to think about this stuff differently. You’ll see that it’s all just components and knowing how to use them correctly. If you’ve got old tools lying around that you’re not using, take it apart and try to put it back together. Even if it doesn’t go perfectly, you’ll learn from the experience, and it’ll be a lot less intimidating when you’re ready to repair something for real.”
And in the near future, Rob can envision a world where we collate our knowledge to teach each other more effectively, bringing that technical barrier down even further for the most tech-challenged among us. “I’d like to eventually put together a list of tools people need to get into DIYing and repairing things, and steps for tackling common problems with things like camera traps that are relatively easy to dig into and fix. Imagine how much easier it would be if we knew where to get the exact resources we need to fix common problems instead of tossing it into a bin to be replaced by a new model. And once you know how to do it for yourself, you can help others. Spaces like WILDLABS already have the ability to connect people and help you find exactly where your unused tools or your skills can make a difference to somebody. So it’s much easier with a platform and community like this to build momentum toward actively sharing and swapping than it would’ve been even a decade ago, when you might never meet somebody who has the same problem or uses the exact same camera trap as you.”
Bypassing the need to replace equipment as frequently, or obtain new equipment for testing project concepts or training students and team members to use tools, can go a long way toward making our work more sustainable simply by reducing demand and reliance on the supply chain. And for contentious conservation tech practitioners, this strategy comes with the added benefit of reducing costs.
As Rob explains, “It may not be a huge moneysaving venture, but for example, when it comes to things like test collars, say each transmitter you’re able to salvage would’ve cost $200. By salvaging five, you’ve reduced your footprint quite a bit, and saved $1000 from your budget. That may not be an impressive amount for projects with massive amounts of funding geared toward trying the latest tools available. But if you’re like a lot of conservationists who are working with a pretty limited budget and trying to expand the amount of tools you’re able to deploy out in the field without running up costs, $1000 can make a big difference.”
And this leads our conversation down the path to another (often underrated) aspect of sustainability: the role that funding plays in our reliance on new tools and our less sustainable choices. Planning projects around the latest, most cutting-edge technology that has all the hype in the world may increase your odds of receiving certain grants and other funding opportunities, and of course, there’s no conservation work at all without the funding that keeps the gears well-greased and turning. But truthfully, not every project needs a fleet of brandnew tools, or needs to collect as much data as possible just because innovative features enable us to do so. And while we can’t hope to change the entire system of funding and academia and all the considerations that come with it, we could take steps toward shifting perspectives of what is valuable, interesting, and attractive about conservation tech projects.
Looking at our work in the planning stages through the lens of sustainability can help you set realistic expectations and find a comfortable middle ground between what’s possible and what’s necessary. And because so many projects in our field are already constrained by funding limitations, many of these questions will already feel quite familiar. Are you choosing a new tool because it significantly adds something to your project’s chances of success, or to solve a mild inconvenience that doesn’t dramatically change your project? How much data do you honestly need to achieve whatever it is you’re setting out to do? How many tools minimum will get you there? If you didn’t have access to brand-new tools without the exact specifications and features, would your goal still be achievable? And if a new tool is part of your plan because it’ll save you time, have you factored in the time it’ll take to get over the learning curve of your new tool and use it effectively? What about if your tool malfunctions? If not, would using a familiar tool actually boost your productivity?
It’s completely fine if the answer to these questions ends up being that new and innovative tools are the right choice for your project! But keeping an open mind and looking for alternatives when possible means you’ll also be open to spotting valuable opportunities to make more sustainable choices, cut costs, and frame your work differently.
In the end, many of Rob’s ideas boil down to the power of shifting perspectives. “Using the newest tools that everyone’s excited about might be novel and exciting and get all the attention, but in a way, isn’t focusing on sustainability and using old tools or thinking outside of the box also just as novel? If everyone is building their project around deploying camera traps with all the latest features, doesn’t it make your project stand out to say that half your cameras will be recycled or DIYed in some way to lessen your project’s footprint?”
“Using the newest tools that everyone’s excited about might be novel and exciting and get all the attention, but in a way, isn’t focusing on sustainability and using old tools or thinking outside of the box also just as novel?
So while there will always be new tools that we want to try, and new innovations that will change our field for the better, maybe it’s okay to embrace the tried and true occasionally. “It might feel like a very small-scale effort at first,” says Rob of exchanging tools and learning to repair what can still be used. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not important or helpful. We might never feel like we’re changing the world - we’re just making little changes along the way. But even if you’re just making changes to make yourself feel good about being more sustainable, it’s worthwhile.”
This article is from our latest editorial series, Sustained Effort: Community Thoughts on Conservation Tech Sustainability.
Our series Sustained Effort brings together conservation tech users and makers to share their own perspectives on this topic. Through these case studies, we'll consider the current challenges of working sustainably in our field, but more importantly, how we can all take realistic, practical, and effective steps toward not only lessening our negative impact right now, but discovering larger steps toward the longterm, system-wide change needed to make conservation technology truly sustainable for our planet.