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.