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Building the green mobile phone

Handset makers tout their concept green phones, but is it really possible to make a phone without impacting the environment?

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Part 1 in a series.

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.

When it comes to 'greening' the mobile phone, most handset vendors emphasize recycling the hardware at its end of 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 three million are in use in the US 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.

WHAT'S IN A PHONE?

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 could potentially be hazardous. According to international environmental organization Greenpeace, these materials include phthalates, the most widespread manmade pollutant 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 is also working towards using biodegradable plastic in lieu of polycarbonate plastic, but isn't there yet, said Jason Todd, LG's environmental programs manager. 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 is also working on ceramic and water-based paints as possible alternatives to oil-based coatings for phones.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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