Smartphones are a dirty business, literally. Mobile electronics contain toxic materials like cadmium, mercury, lead, and lithium. What’s worse, according to the EPA, Americans disposed of 19,500 tons of mobile devices in 2010, and only recycled 11 percent.
That means Americans simply trashed 17,200 tons of smartphones and other mobile products, which approximates to about 135,000,000 devices.
One can bet the totals are much higher for 2011 onward. According to the CEA, U.S. smartphopne shipments hit 108.8 million in 2012, and will grow to a projected 152 million by 2014.
Carrier Policy, Not Technology, The Immediate Solution
According to the chatter at the Compass Intelligence Go Mobile 2014 conference, the immediate solution will be small wholesale changes to device manufacturing and device management to keep older smartphones out of the landfill, or even the recycling bin, rather than world-changing technological advancements like biodegradable smartphone components and solar-powered batteries.
Addressing conference goers, Marci VerBrugge-Rhind, Sprint’s Director of Corporate Responsibility Communications, claimed, “For every 10 sales, four customers hand over their old phones,” and that “out of all of the phones we get back, nine out of every 10 are actually reused.” Specifically, those devices are remanufactured and used as device replacements.
Reparability a Factor Too
Taking it a step further, Darren Beck, Director of Environmental Initiatives and CR Innovation at Sprint, stressed smartphone reparability as a means to reduce e-waste, and major device buyers like Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T should be “encouraging the folks who are doing the manufacturing and design work on the frontend to ensure they are thinking through the process with greater reparability in mind.” For example, “they [can] modularize the components so if I break my screen it doesn’t have five other pieces connected to it.”
Despite the promises of Google’s Project Ara, we won’t be cracking open smartphones to replace busted components anytime soon.
Also speaking at the conference, Roman Smith, Director of Sustainability Operations at AT&T claimed, “I do not believe that AT&T will allow consumers to do those interoperability things, I think that poses a lot of risk. Thing could change, but I think right now we are looking at how do we design a device that the professional figures can repair at the end of life.”
Device Maker Transparency
Device manufacturers can also play ball through transparency in the manufacturing process. One idea Beck floated out was the use of labels or QR codes that function as something similar to common nutritional labels, but for mobile phones.
“Through a QR code on the device, you can scan that and understand all the materials that went into the device, so you know the breakdown and composition, when it comes down to recycling further downstream – what’s worth going after and what’s not,” Beck said.
Those working with the discarded devices can then better understand “how do you go about disassembling this product, what is it you do in terms of how you best recycle this product downstream.”
What Do You Think?
Why are smartphone recycling rates so low? What can carriers do to entice more device recycling? What new green tech innovations show the most promise in reducing e-waste? Head over to the Brighthand forums and join the conversation.