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Building the Green Mobile Phone

Handset-makers are touting green concepts, but is it really possible to make a phone without impacting the environment?

Castor beans, corn, water bottles, car tires, aluminum cans — not what one typically thinks of when it comes to mobile phones, but these are key ingredients handset-makers are experimenting with to make their devices more environmentally friendly. Even with the economy tightening budgets, consumers are increasingly seeking out eco-conscious products, putting the pressure on mobile phone vendors to go green, starting with one of the least green aspects of wireless — building the handset.

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When it comes to “greening” the mobile phone, most handset vendors emphasize recycling hardware at the end of its life. Even well-known environmental organizations, including the Rocky Mountain Institute, Columbia Earth Institute and EnergyStar, don't assess the materials that go into building a mobile phone. Yet, any given device is made up of hundreds of chemicals and components that are potentially harmful to the environment. In the past few years as mobile phones have grown ubiquitous — nearly 3 million are in use in the U.S. today, not to mention retired in desk drawers — the need for environmentally friendly practices has grown more acute. Handset vendors have made great strides in marketing the green concept, but when it comes to actual green practices, there is only so far they can go.

Despite their shrinking size and average shelf life of only 12 to 18 months, mobile phones contain several hundred materials outside of plastics and metals — many of which potentially could be hazardous. According to environmental organization Greenpeace, these materials include phthalates — man-made pollutants used to soften the metal of a phone's plastic casing — Brominated flame retardants, vinyl plastic, arsenic, zinc and lead.

Most of these toxic substances have been legally banned, and other substances known to threaten the environment are being phased out voluntarily by many manufacturers. Nokia, for one, began introducing phones, headsets and chargers free of PVC — the harmful plastic traditionally used to insulate wires in phones — at the beginning of 2006. Two years later, the company launched the Nokia 7100 Supernova, the first product free of Brominated compounds, antimony trioxide and chlorinated flame retardants.

LG has stopped using beryllium, a known hazardous material, in its handsets. The handset-maker also is working toward using biodegradable plastic in lieu of polycarbonate plastic, but isn't there yet, said Jason Todd, environmental programs manager for LG. The issue with using 100% biodegradable plastic is that it compromises durability, he added. LG's goal is to strike a balance between recycled and durable, which Todd said is possibly around 30% to 50% biodegradable plastic. By 2012, it plans to make its handsets free of halogenated substances and also is working on ceramic- and water-based paints as possible alternatives to oil-based coatings for phones.

LG and Nokia aren't unique in their efforts to rid their phones of environmentally damaging materials, said John Walls, vice president of public affairs for CTIA. He said it's safe to assume that no new handset coming to the market has hazardous chemicals in it. The top five handset-makers all are RoHS-complaint — meaning their phones contain no more than the agreed-upon levels of lead, cadmium, mercury and other harmful elements.

“Each of them recognizes the social responsibility they have to developing more environmentally friendly products,” Walls said. “They are spending a great deal of their resources on making that happen and possible to offer in large scale.”

The removal of harmful materials is a big step in the right direction, but it's not a complete solution. While it's clear, as Walls said, that handset-makers are eager to embrace the green movement, it's less certain how much they actually can do. Concept products, including that Nokia Remade and Samsung Blue Earth, that encompass a vendor's best green efforts have been shown at nearly every wireless show, but most are meant to inspire or raise awareness rather than be mass produced and sold.

When it comes to building the phone, handset-makers simply may not be able to drive the green concept much further. Finding 100% recycled materials to use in phone production is the first significant roadblock, said Mike Newman, vice president of electronics sustainability firm ReCellular.

“In theory, copper is copper and gold is gold, and the metals that go into the circuitry are just that,” Newman said. “Now in standard recycling practices, not all the materials in the phone actually end up getting recycled. When you are smelting the metals, there are residual plastics and other things in there that get consumed in the smelting process.”

For example, the Motorola W233 Renew is made out of recycled plastics bottles, but it isn't easy to find bottles of this sort in the first place, he said. Most traditional phone housings made from plastics have different fire retardants and chemicals already in them. When it comes to metals, the market gets even more complicated. The process of smelting a new handset involves continuously adding new materials to melt down in the furnace, Newman said, and because of the continuous cycle, a company cannot go out and get the raw metals with the guarantee they are 100% recycled.

“You are constantly feeding [the furnace], and it's constantly spitting out metal,” Newman said. “It's all mixed together in the end. It's very hard to segregate it. I equate it to buying renewable energy credits, which a lot of consumers are doing now. They know [consumers] aren't plugging in their TV or stereo with the cord literally attached to a windmill. It's a little more detached than that, but the end result is the same: Because of your efforts, environmentally beneficial acts are happening.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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