The People Want Their Phones Green

There's a discussion I was clued into recently, taking place over at a spiked, a reporting website, which describes it self thusly:

spiked is an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms. spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it.

I'm not quite sure what the "ethos" or "raison d'etre" of spiked is, but many of the articles explore interesting perspectives. One of these is "The Mobile Footprint and Consumer Expectations" which debates the "impact of mobile communications on the environment." The subject itself took me a bit aback, as I for one didn't expect our of love of cell phones to impact the environment in a negative way. But in fact, respect for the environment is the top issue that consumers report they'd like to see mobile companies contribute to--ranked higher than crime prevention, health, or education.

This makes sense when you think of the disposable nature of cell phones and all their accouterments (chargers, batteries, etc), some of which are toxic and certainly not easily biodegradable. Cell phones has become a fashion accessory to be customized, and thrown away at a whim. Such sentiments were not present with regular 'home phones' since, well, nobody really saw your home phone. If there's one thing that cell phone companies have succeeded in, its making the choice of cell phone a major, and identity-reflecting decision akin to the clothes you wear or the music you listen to. However, while people generally *want* to contribute to the health of the environment, many times it is the case that they don't want to pay more for the privilege of doing so.

This is of special concern to me today, as its the first official day I'm using my new iPhone (I lurve it!). However, when I bought my new phone yesterday, it was the first time I had in 4 years. My old phone, a Nokia 6600, had the impertinence not to die, but more importantly I didn't find a phone I liked better until the (newly price reduced) iPhone. But I imagine that the turnover rate for cell phones is much faster, especially given the cheap incentives and bonuses offered to new and returning customers.

Why hasn't any company come up with a biodegradable phone? Or environmentally-safe batteries?

In 2005, some researchers announced that they had found a way to make cell phone cases biodegradable, and under some conditions, they would break down and produce a flower! Personally, I think a tree would be more lasting and positive, but the idea is on-target. Three years later, I have yet to see this technology put into place, or even mentioned again past the few old press releases. Beyond the actual phone itself, it anyone paying attention to how cell phones are made? As one of the most common consumer electronics, even small inroads into making the production more eco-friendly would have an impact over the longer term.

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Cost mostly. The methods and materials you're talking about have no economy of scale yet. Of course, that's a catch-22, as without it, the chances of getting them used at the levels where that happens are slim to none.

The other issue could be engineering. There's a chance that the more biodegradable materials are not able to be used in the same ways as aluminum, glass, and traditional petroleum-based plastics. Battery engineering is particularly tricky as you have less leeway in materials if you want a certain level of power for days at a time.

Maybe you guys haven't heard about it, but the EU's RoHS initiative is rolling over the entire electronics industry (because its a big market). Among other things, it eliminates the use of lead-based solder.

There is controversy over how effective RoHS will actually be and what effects replacement solders might have, but there it is.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RoHS

One thing hindering the development of more biodegradable or recyclable consumer electronics (why limit it to phones?) is that the disposal costs are not born by the manufacturer.

How much more would you be willing to pay for a phone that was green? Right now, I bet the answer for most people is far less than the cost it would take to make it so. Even worse, people might say, "I'd pay $20 more for a green phone," but then actually choose a phone with more features.

The iphone is a good example of how these tradeoffs work. The battery is soldered in so the user can't change it on their own without a lot of trouble and risk. Apple will happily replace it for you, for a small fee, of course, and it shouldn't wear out for a year at the minimum, so what's the problem? Apple saves some amount of money by simplifying their manufacturing process and generates a repair and service revenue stream! $$$$! Arguably the design would be better for the user if the user could replace the batter on their own: no need to send your phone off for a few days, you'd get the ability to use cheaper batteries, better trouble shooting oportunities, etc. But people aren't willing to pay enough for that feature to offset the profit that Apple gets from manufacturing savings and service charges.

Green technology has the same problems. That's why some parts of Europe have started making manufacturing companies responsible for some products "cradle to grave."

Be cautious of Spiked. It was formerly Living Marxism, the magazine of the UK Revolutionary Communist Party, although from what I've read its main tactic was to oppose all the other left-wing splinter groups - a sort of "Judean People's Front" approach ("splitter!"). It has effectively gone so far left it has come out the other side and ended up as Hayekian far-right anarcho-libertarian. Sometimes it seems to try to be contrarian simply for the sake of it.

It has frequently criticised global
warming and environmental policies. Martin Durkin (of "Great Global Warming Swindle" fame: see Deltoid passim ) is a noted fellow traveller.

Further reading: http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1102753,00.html (George Monbiot, going perhaps slightly overboard, but nevertheless with some good points)
http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2007/03/04/swindlewatch-07/ (thorough run-down of Spiked/RCP/LM and Durkin's links to them)

Some good threads on the Badscience forum too: google "spiked site:badscience.net".