The average smartphone contains 62 different metals — each one playing a key role in colour displays, vibration and phone conductivity. Similar materials are used in TVs, computers, camera lenses and certain light bulbs.
Aside from the damage caused by unearthing these materials — both to the environment and human health — there’s no skirting around the sustainability questions: What happens to our tech once it’s fallen into creator-mandated obsolescence? Can electronics products be made that do not end up in landfill, releasing toxic substances into the earth for generations to come?
This was the starting point for Finnish design studio Aivan, which worked with scientists to produce a prototype pair of over-ear headphones constructed entirely from natural sources.
The result, ‘Korvaa’, uses six different microbially-grown substances. As reported by Dezeen, the design uses strong but flexible 3D-printed yeast-based bioplastic for the ‘crown’ and the ‘shell’ — the part that fits around the ears.
Much like regular headphones, this sustainable version offers padding around the ears. Korvaa uses a fungus-derived protein known as hydrophobin, a foam-like collection of tiny bubbles, which it reinforces with plant cellulose covered in another fungus-derived material, mycelium.
The mesh in between the ear and the speaker is created from synthetic spider silk, a natural substance so strong that engineered versions of the same material have been used to make bulletproof vests.
Speaking to Dezeen, Aivan product designer Saku Sysiö explained that the product was a concept made with a series of compromises, but said that nonetheless “it’s a rapidly developing field of research and we’re excited to see what happens in this area in the next years, and the implications for various industries.”
Aivan has stated that the headphones intend to test the boundaries of sustainable product design but not to replace the current generation of headphones. The team also has to work through just how ‘green’ the product is — studies have found that biodegradable plastics offer little to no advantage over normal plastics in reducing ocean pollution.
Either way, the prototype is an intriguing step forward for sustainability in electronics. How long before we see Apple release a sustainable product – perhaps the fungiPhone?