How Green Is Your Cell Phone?

September 15, 2010

Cell phones are among the most notoriously ubiquitous — and disposable — hallmarks of 21st century life. But over the last year, several cell phone manufacturers and wireless carriers have started marketing "eco-friendly" cell phones such as the Samsung Reclaim (on Sprint) and Motorola W233 Renew (on T-Mobile).

Examining these claims, and exploring how cell phones and their use impact the environment, can be the hook for compelling consumer news stories in any media. Here are a few tips for covering this issue:

UL STANDARDS COMING THIS YEAR. In the US there's no "green labeling" program for cell phones, so it's not easy to objectively compare phones' eco-claims. In the US, UL Environment Inc. (part of Underwriters Laboratories) is designing its initial sustainability standards for cell phones. These are due out in late 2010. UL Environment Release. Press: Katya Hantel, 312-729-4219.

UK EXAMPLE OF COMPARING GREEN CELL PHONE CLAIMS: This summer UK wireless carrier O2 presented its first eco ratings of popular cell phones. This program was designed jointly with the environmental group Forum for the Future.

KEEP IT OUT OF THE LANDFILL. Before getting caught up with special green features, remember that the most effective path to a greener cell phone is: Don't throw out your old cell phone! Most wireless carrier retail stores, electronics retailers, and office supply stores will accept used cell phones for recycling at no fee. Also, most cell phone manufacturers offer mail-in recycling programs.

Green is the color of money, too. Many consumers sell their used mobile phones via Craigslist or eBay. But if that's too much hassle, "re-commerce" companies such as Gazelle.com will make a cash offer for used phones (or other electronics), mail you a postage-paid shipping box, and Paypal the money when the device is received and checked out.

Safety first: Remind consumers to take proper precautions to thoroughly delete their data from their phone. Also, remove the SIM card from GSM-network phones (AT&T and T-Mobile in the US). For many smartphones, in addition to deleting your data it's also possible to overwrite your phone's memory by filling it up with music or video files.

Consumers can also keep cell phones out of landfills — and save lots of money — by opting to purchase a used or refurbished phone, rather than a new one. Most manufacturers and wireless carriers sell certified refurbished models through their web sites. You can also buy refurbished cell phones via most major online retailers such as Overstock.com and Amazon.com.

WHAT'S IT MADE OF? Materials are among the most heavily promoted green claims for cell phones — both for the phone's components, and packaging materials. For instance, the Samsung Reclaim is made with 80% recyclable materials and features organic components and packaging. The LG Remarq contains 19% recycled materials and has 100% recyclable packaging.

In June, CNET provided a comparison chart of the leading green phones, with links to reviews.

SMART PHONES AREN'T VERY GREEN. While smart phones are heavily promoted and they're gaining popularity, in general they are not very eco-friendly.

Energy consumption is the biggest problem over the lifetime of a smartphone phone. With their fancy touchscreen displays, more powerful processors, and churning background operations, smartphones typically consume far more energy than simpler, cheaper "feature phones." This is why smartphone owners commonly complain of poor battery life.

GREEN CHARGING: The coming year is likely to offer a surge of green charging options. Samsung's Blue Earth phone (already launched in Asia and Europe, and expected to debut in the US later this year) includes a built-in solar panel for charging. Mobile Burn review of the Samsung Blue Earth.

Several manufacturers already offer solar cell phone chargers. 12volt Solar Panels recently explained how they work, and reviewed a few models.

Also, solar chargers are available for several cell phone accessories, such as speaker phones (for car use) or Bluetooth headsets.

AT&T recently introduced its Zero Charger — which automatically shuts down when not charging a cell phone, thus avoiding wasting energy via "phantom power".

NETWORK POWER USE. In June in the UK, the Guardian's Green Living Blog noted "The footprint of the energy required to transmit your calls across the [wireless carrier] network is about three times all of [the phone's direct energy use] put together." They advise: "If you want to reduce the footprint of your communication habits, texting is a much lower-carbon option. Landlines offer carbon savings, too, because it takes about one-third of the power to transmit a call over a fixed landline network than it does when both callers are on a mobile."