SparkFun Sustainability Effort


For years, Sparkfun has been actively participating in sustainable practices. In the past, these endeavors have not been documented and shared very well, but recently we have ramped up our efforts! For example, we are now composting, recycling Styrofoam and plastic bags, along with regular single stream items, e-waste, and cardboard. We also filter and re-use the water of our closed-loop circuit board washer so no pollutants enter nearby waterways! However, the most exciting advances in our sustainability efforts has to be the group of committed individuals who participated in our kickoff event this past Friday, the 20th.


The Styrofoam recycling location - complete with glowing sign (made from remnant acrylic and salvaged wood).

The competition was about creating a proposal related to sustainability and SparkFun. In other words, pretty wide open. Representatives from 10 for Change were there to help judge, and the winner received $500. We had six entries that day and numerous other ideas in the works. It was very inspiring to see people working toward the goal of making SparkFun a more sustainable place and see all their ingenuity at work.

The winning entry came from the Human Resources Department, with Sallie and Kristen leading the presentation. We are now paperless when it comes to paychecks, payments to some companies, and invoices. Also, Production is switching to paperless build sheets and time sheets. We are saving roughly 250 pounds of paper in Human Resources and 150 pounds in Production per year and saving $4,100 annually! Some other projects included:

  • Pamela and Joel: Improving eWaste at Sparkfun and the community, and creating a better ding-and-dent system.
  • Randy, Joel and Mike: Energy monitoring project, including building a cheaper and easy to build kill-o-watt like device.
  • Lara: Creating unique signage for Sparkfun's waste streams! Awesome pictures and detailed descriptions of the items, with spiffy color-coordination.
  • Randy: Hard to recycle day for Sparkfun employees, including a 'swap' and 'fix it' table.
  • TJ: Educating new hires with a short, informational, and entertaining video about recycling, composting, and hard to recycle materials.
  • Pearce: Investigating more sustainable packaging materials.


TJ showing off his presentation skills.

Needless to say all of these proposals are fantastic, and we are working on making them a reality. If you have a great idea for us, I (or we?) would love to hear about it - leave any ideas or suggestions in the comments below. Thanks!


Comments 63 comments

  • Obligatory XKCD Comic

    • Sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable. Sustainable sustainable sustainable? Sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable!

      Sustainable, sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable. Sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable.

      Sustainable.

      • Malkovich?

        • My son once built a balsa wood car that could travel over 200 feet down the corridor of his high school powered only by the spring from a standard mousetrap. It is amazing how much efficiency you can achieve when you make it a goal.

          Consider holding a robot contest in which each contestant is given an identical battery which is their only power source. Award the prize to the robot that travels the greatest distance before running out of power. This will encourage people to think of clever ways to accomplish the assigned task in energy-efficient ways.

          For example, which PWM frequency is most energy-efficient for my robot? Can I use a freewheel diode to make my motor more efficient? Is the course hilly, and would my robot benefit from regenerative braking? Can I run my MCU at a lower frequency to save power? Can I put the MCU into sleep mode and have a timer wake it up 20 times per second to update the system state before going back to sleep? What is RDSon for my motor drivers? Can I find a more efficient driver with a lower RDSon?

    • Two words: low power

      A lot of your customers are, or will someday be, designing commercial products that consume energy. Sparkfun can probably find ways to save a little bit of energy inside its own four walls. But if you educate your customers about low-power design, there will be a multiplier effect.

      1. Design all of your products to be as low-power as is practical. Include a section in the documentation that explains how you analyzed the power consumption and the design choices you made to reduce power consumption. In other words, lead by example. Make this a standard, required part of the design process and the documentation, right along with the schematic.

      2. Don’t forget about firmware. For example, does the Logomatic automatically go into sleep mode when it is not busy? Kudos if it already does that.

      3. Offer products that customers can use to implement low-power designs. For example, offer some high-side switches, possibly on break-out-boards, along with advice on how to use them.

      4. I recently read an article which stated that Sparkfun is planning to offer K-12 educational materials. Consider including a unit on low-power design in the curriculum.

      Empower customers to create low-power designs by creating and exhibiting a culture of low-power design at Sparkfun.

    • Two words: low power

      A lot of your customers are, or will someday be, designing commercial products that consume energy. Sparkfun can probably find ways to save a little bit of energy inside its own four walls. But if you educate your customers about low-power design, there will be a multiplier effect.

      1. Design all of your products to be as low-power as is practical. Include a section in the documentation that explains how you analyzed the power consumption and the design choices you made to reduce power consumption. In other words, lead by example. Make this a standard, required part of the design process and the documentation, right along with the schematic.

      2. Don’t forget about firmware. For example, does the Logomatic automatically go into sleep mode when it is not busy? Kudos if it already does that.

      3. Offer products that customers can use to implement low-power designs. For example, offer some high-side switches, possibly on break-out-boards, along with advice on how to use them.

      4. I recently read an article which stated that Sparkfun is planning to offer K-12 educational materials. Consider including a unit on low-power design in the curriculum.

      Empower customers to create low-power designs by creating and exhibiting a culture of low-power design at Sparkfun.

  • I LOVE YOU SPARKFUN GREAT SERVICE!!!

    Shipment was missing an item and there was an extra item thrown in called sparkfun up and no hassles they are sending the right item keep the extra part.

    GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE

  • SparkFun is awesome. You guys are really making some huge progress, and I love the fact that you guys can get so much amazing stuff done without being like huge cubicle-laden corporations.

    I was pumped when I found out that you guys were an hour’s drive from my house a few years ago, but it’s just gotten better and better.

  • Is that a Foosball table I see in the background of that styrofoam picture?

  • I applaud the efforts being made by Sparkfun towards Sustainability, but I have to wonder how much waste is being generated by the retail blister packs? There were comments made on how the red boxes end up reused over and over, why not provide retail in the smaller boxes? They’ve got to be easier to recycle than the blister packaging.

    • Maybe they could switch to Ingeo? Apple use Ingeo for their iTunes cards, at least in Canada. If you want to do some kinds of tests yourself, it’s an easy-to-find source of small Ingeo plastic sheets.

      Seems to work for food packaging and I’m guessing the blister packs are molded the same way: http://www.natureworksllc.com/Product-and-Applications/Fresh-Food-Packaging.aspx

      • I’ve never heard of that until now, but that seems like a great solution, especially moving away from the oil-based plastics. It’s very interesting that its biodegradable and certified as such in a number of major waste producing companies. Sparkfun should definitely take a look at it.

        The only concern I could note is that its primary base is PLA, which tends to be a bit more brittle than most plastics, but I’m sure there are ways around that.

        • PLA Poly(lactic acid) is old news-every Reprap user has some lying around. It’s not some miracle plastic and further, lets not get into name branding. Ingeo is a brand name of PLA just like Teflon is a brand name of PTFE. You cannot go around calling everything Teflon, nor is it all Ingeo. Also, it still takes energy to make PLA so despite it’s “green” cough cough source, it’s energy (AKA OIL) consumption to make it is just as bad as ABS. It’s also fighting ethanol and food uses of corn. http://environment.about.com/od/greenlivingdesign/a/pla.htm

  • And these are some of the reasons I choose to spend my geek $ at Sparkfun!!! Keep up the great work!!!

  • Sustainability is a very good practice. The world will get better and better as long as we keep the planet healthy.

  • At my workplace, we abandoned the use of colored cardboard boxes to save cost (and environmental savings were a side effect). I know the red Sparkfun boxes are iconic, but I wonder how much ink, bleach, energy, and cost would be saved if Sparkfun switched to undyed (brown) boxes?

    • This has actually gotten discussed quite a lot around here. A big part of the debate is that once the box is shipped, there’s nothing that we can do to make sure that the customer at the other end recycles his or her box, but keeping them iconic DOES strongly encourage people to re-use them, as enclosures, storage, and decoration. I see a lot of shipping boxes just get thrown away (and I’m guilty of it too!), but nobody I know throws their SF boxes away!

      • the best part of the spark fun boxes is that they are small, most companies have these large space wasting boxes that you can only toss. I have every box i recieved from sparkfun doing everything from hiding small presents, parts containers, mounting structures, and a LED Clock. if it was brown, it’s have gone away. keep the boxes. I just whish you guys didn’t heat seal the ziplock bag my parts came in. You have saved money, and i’d be reusing that bag too…

        • I’ll second: “I just whish you guys didn’t heat seal the ziplock bag my parts came in.”

      • My first order box is still in my room. It has gone from random parts holder, to Arduino shield box, to future enclosure. Too bad I once had my soldering iron on top for 10min. It now has a big black spot on the packing label :(

      • I’ve actually never thrown away any of my Sparkfun boxes!! they’re too cool lookin :)

      • I also keep several of them at home. Somehow they remind me of Xmas and Santa’s presents :)

      • I wouldn’t be crushed if Sparkfun switched to undyed boxes, but I like the red color and icon and would miss them. My boxes are used for storing various projects or small parts, so either way they won’t go to waste in my shop.

      • Indeed. I make it a point to reuse the sparkfun boxes, but the others are recycled or incinerated if I can’t find a use for them.

        I even still have my first sparkfun box still, the one my “Deluxe Tool Kit” was shipped it. I use it to hold my pieces of wire of various lengths.

    • You just became my favorite customer.

  • I was thinking about this the other day. My idea was to keep an audit trail of all materials the enter and leave the shop. If a pound of aluminum comes in, a pound of aluminum should be going out. Or plastic, or whatever you use.

    At the end of the month, the audit tells you how efficiently you used the material and what happened to the amount not converted to products / parts etc.

    As a bonus, the need to weigh the resulting parts, scrap, and cuttings keeps the shop clean. You can even make a game out of it, giving a prize to the most efficient person.

  • Two ideas for packaging. Recyclable ‘peanuts’.They’re not styrofoam, but ‘cornstarch’ based. Kinda neet, when they get wet, they melt, totallly biodegradable. The other is a cardboard shredder. Expensive, but all incoming boxes, from vendors, get turned into packing, instead of trash. Last time I checked they were about $2000, for a small one.

  • Do you guys recycle empty reels?

  • TJ looks like TK in the Angel Beats anime character:

    http://www.angelbeats.jp/chara/

  • Yup! You live in Boulder.

  • How to be sustainable:

    1) Reuse anti-static bags, foam, and boxes.

    2) Use Red boxes for storage (Or as a project case).

    3) Reuse or recycle packing materials.

    4) Donate/Giveaway or sell unwanted/unfixable electronics.

    To sparkfun: Switch to zip lock anti static shield bags. Pink bags do not protect parts from static, They just don’t generate any static. Heat sealing also prevents the said bag from being reused.

  • great job sparkfun great post again.

  • I reuse email addresses.

  • Does Sparkfun have a good recycling program for all the little bits of wire, insulation, etc?

  • “Investigating more sustainable packaging materials”.

    I’ve done that myself a few years ago and here’s the ones I found worthy of being kept in my bookmarks:

    expandos.com : In my opinion this one is more oriented toward big items, but since you do have big and heavy products such as soldering stations, it’s worth checking out. You can order the packaging material “flat” and get a machine to “expand” it on-site, which makes shipping the material to Digi-Key more environmentally friendly, takes less space for inventory, etc.

    www.geami.com : Digi-Key switched to this a few years ago, I think it’s perfect to ship small and lightweight items. You can order the packaging material “flat” and get a machine to “expand” it on-site, which makes shipping the material to Digi-Key more environmentally friendly, takes less space for inventory, etc.

    www.easypack.net/en/products/shredder : This one seems like a good way to recycle shipping boxes, could be useful to pad at least the sides/bottom/top of boxes when shipping really big and heavy items.

    I hope this helps.

  • How about not including the extra packing slip in shipments, we receive a digital one, plus the 1 on the box. I’ve always wondered why there was 1 inside the box too.

    • Not all packages have packing slips on the outside - usually just international FedEx orders (which is required by FedEx). The internal packing slip is what we use when we are picking the parts (print out the sheet, carry the sheet with us to pick, then use the sheet as a packing slip), so it will still get printed at this point - even if it doesn’t make it into the shipments.

  • More ding and dents are always welcome. (I shall go to sparkfun and sabotage the water cooler, leaving room for machine errors!! making more dings and dents!!!)

  • My first thought is dual flush toilets

  • What have you found for recycling packaging materials for electronics? For example, ESD bags, ESD-safe pink bubble wrap, and tape & reel plastic & paper? More so with ESD bags, I see a lot of these in my job and would like to dispose of them in a good way.

    • The pink ESD bags are the same type of plastic as grocery bags. We recently partnered with Eco-Cycle to dispose of that kind of plastic, and we can also throw in bubble wrap and ziploc bags. They sell the plastic to a company that makes decking from it! My advice would be to check with your local recycling company and see if they offer something similar.

      • I have one suggestion for ESD bags that you ship out to customers. How about using Velostat ESD bags?

        Velostat is manufactured by 3M, it also has an interesting piezo-resistance property which means it can be cut up and re-purposed to make flex/pressure sensors. Just a thought.

        Plusea’s stickytape sensor Instructable

        BTW, I’ve started making these for one or two projects myself, and they do work. ;-)

  • So when is that cheaper Kill-a-Watt replacement going to be released? Those commercial ones are like $15.

  • Quick hint to help a small bit on recycling and reuse - and organizing…. toilet paper (and paper towel) tubes make GREAT holders for USB and power cords. If you loop up the USB right, both ends are visible on same end of the tube. Tubes also stack pretty well, which makes it a LOT better than that rats nest of cables we all usually have.

    Also old cardboard boxes make great test material for Laser Cutters. And old cereal boxes make great card stock for business cards in a laser etcher.

    • This is a great suggestion. I’m gonna try to organize my rats-nest of spare cables at home using this approach.

  • How about trying a partnership with a Carbon offset company (TerraPass or similar) and offer customers the option to purchase carbon credits at the time of checkout to offset shipping impacts?

    If you don’t already, you could offer your employees the Bicycle Commuter Tax Benefit (reimbursement) and/or Transit Benefits (not sure what the transit situation is like in Boulder). Be sure to provide either indoor bicycle parking (and shower) or work with the landlord to offer secure bike racks outside.

    There’s lots of other suggestions for energy efficiency and employee health, but without knowing everything that you’re doing already, it would be a bit excessive to try and post all of them.

    • Carbon offsets should be criminal. Really, do some homework and see how little carbon offsets help the environment. They take the money and run. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/mar/08/carbon-offsets-scam/ http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2010/06/more_fraud_in_carbon_offsets.shtml

      Sparkfun is a smart company that does it’s best to prevent waste (love their shipping boxes), and follow green point of manufacture processes. While you brought up some other good points, please see for yourself how many scams are embedded in the green movement. It’s not that I don’t support green ideas but please tell me you are smarter than giving someone money to offset carbon. The concept is just stupid. Please donate your money to a worthy cause and not some organization that its whole point of existance is to rip you off, so they can drive the big SUV and have 7 homes, a private jet, and destroy the enviroment. Again, if you feel dirty and need to donate-plant a tree in your neighborhood and watch it grow. In fact, setting the money on fire so you don’t spend it (on stuff that is the problem) is actually more effective use than sending it to carbon offsets.

    • The carbon offset idea is a great thought and one that we are considering. Besides the things mentioned above we now we provide indoor bicycle parking, RTD Eco-Passes, reusable silverware, dishes, and pint glasses, have converted all of our old fluorescent lighting to the more efficient t-8 bulbs, are Rohs compliant, provide a wellness benefit so people can join a gym, and I’ve been working on educating our staff so everything is knowledgeable about recycling. I’m sure I’ve left something out..but yea, that’s our list so far! Thanks for your input.

      • It sounds like you’re all already taking a lot of good measures.

        A few other ideas (though they may be too expensive to do all at once), depending on how much flexibility you have with the property: Installing sensor-activated faucets, low-flow toilets, and waterless urinals. Installing photo, motion and sound sensors to turn off lights if no one is using a room, or if the ambient light is sufficient.

        A former employer of mine was able to partner with the landowner/developer to install a slew of technologies include grey-water systems, solar systems, a green roof, and pervious pavement while splitting the cost in agreement to act as a demonstration site and extended case-study in the cost/benefits of these LID/LEED technologies. You might be able to partner with nearby educational institutions along similar lines (if you can get your landlord to go along).

        When it comes time for new or additional work areas, consider wheatboard work surfaces, natural-fiber fabrics, and plant-based plastics.

        It sounds like you’re making a lot of progress, though!

  • Sparkfun made the “news” today because of Free Day.

    http://www.ecnmag.com/News/2012/01/SparkFun-Electronics–Third-Annual-Free-Day-Event-Draws-More-Than-32,000-Unique-Website-Visitors/

  • Can you post that TJ video? I’d like to see that.

  • Here’s an idea.

    Hearing the stories, the central keg in the break room runs out of beer a lot. It might be cheaper to actually brew your own beer!

    • We’ve been there! Well, not brewing on site per se, but several of our employees are avid home brewers and once in a great while we’ll see a custom brew pop up in the keg.

      My favorite was the Tail Waggin' Pale Ale whipped up by Pete and Casey, an homage to the many SparkFun doggies.

    • Nano-brewing: Have a set-up that brews alcohol by the glass (or pitcher) at your desk! LOL Run lines to or from the “water cooler”.

    • Seconded.

  • How was that acrylic glowing sign made? Is the image etched into the acrylic? It’s quack-tastic.


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