Making cell phones greener

With mobile-device e-waste piling up, there are steps manufacturers can take to phones eco-friendlier

There's a growing supply of green computers on the market -- machines that are energy efficient and built in an environmentally friendly manner. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for cell phones. That, at least, is the conclusion I've reached having spent the past couple of weeks attempting to find any type of cell phone that is available in the United States and that surpasses the basic requirements of RoHS, the European Union's Restriction on Hazardous Substances.

That's an unfortunate trend, in my view, as phones are contributing to the ever-growing mass of e-waste being produced by the United States and beyond each year. According to the EPA, of the 140.3 million cell phones ready for end-of-life management over the past two years, 126.3 million (or around 90 percent) ended up being disposed of -- mostly in landfills -- rather than being recycled. That poses a hazard to the environment and to human health, both here and abroad.

Another disturbing figure: Most Americans keep their cell phones for just 18 months. Extending the service life of a phone from one to four years would decrease the environmental impacts by about 40 percent, according to a Swiss study conducted in 2006.

Although part of the responsibility for making cell-phone use greener lies with users (such as keeping them longer and recycling them at the end of the useful lives), there's much the cell phone industry can do to clean up its act. Here's are a few ideas.

1. Use fewer hazardous materials. As I mentioned, cell phone manufacturers are making devices that contain fewer hazardous materials, in compliance with RoHS. But there's more that can be done, such as using additional alternative substances for the casing as well as within the devices.

In terms of casing, there's already been progress outside the United States. Samsung, for example, has produced a couple of phones with casings made from bio-plastic, a substance derived from plant life, such as corn, rather than petroleum. One is called the E200 Eco; the other is the W510. Neither of them is available in the United States, however.

Similarly, Nokia revealed the 3110 Evolve, which boasts faceplates made from upward of 50 percent renewable material, earlier this year. It's not available in the United States either.

In a similar vein, the company unveiled last February a concept phone called Remade, which would be built out of "upcycled" materials, such as aluminum cans, plastic drink bottles, and old car tires. The inside would contain printed electronics, which reduce waste and CO2 emissions during manufacturing.

These are the types of concepts other cell phone manufacturers should incorporate into their designs and should make available on a wider scale for the sake of the planet -- and to sate demand for greener goods.

2. Tap into solar power. I've seen a total of one phone on the market thus far that contains solar cells for clean charging, and said phone, the S116 Solar, is only available in China from a company called Hi-Tech Wealth.

That's not to say the concept of a solar-powered cell phone isn't on the radar of other phone makers. Motorola, for example, holds a patent for a solar-panel LCD screen. (Apple filed a similar patent earlier this year.)

My question here is, what's the holdup with producing more sun-powered phones? There are already solar-powered cell-phone chargers on the market, such as the Solio Universal Hybrid Charger. Why aren't we seeing the clean technology integrated directly into more than one phone?

3. Make phones more power efficient. The more energy efficient a phone is, the less time it needs to suck juice from the wall. That helps lower the utility bill a bit while helping out the environment.

What I'd like to see, for starters, is an Energy Star standard for mobile phones. There's already Energy Star standard for cordless phones, as well as for cell-phone adapters. Why not for the phone themselves? Surely there must be some demand for phones that can go a longer while between charges.

I'd also like to see more phones capable of alerting users when their batteries are full from charging, another way to reduce energy wasted from chargers remaining pointlessly plugged into the wall. A beeping sound to alert users that the phone is fully charged would be useful.

4. Extend the lives of cell phones. The aforementioned 18-month lifespan for a cell phone is, in my view, ridiculous. Phone manufacturers need to build devices that are meant to last -- and users need to get accustomed to the idea of holding on to their phones a while longer.

5. Build phones for recycling. Here, the cell phone manufacturers can take a page from the book of those PC makers who are building machines with their post-use life in mind. That means designing cell phones for easy disassembly with components marked as to what substance they're made from and whether they contain hazardous materials. This approach would also make it easier to reuse parts for future phones, thus further enhancing recyclability.

What would you do to make cell phones greener?