Sunday, June 8, 2008

Cellular Phones and the Rest

A few weeks ago while I was logged into Facebook, I clicked on the I Am Green application which I had loaded months before, to explore it further since it has several tabbed sections which I haven't fully explored yet because I'm a busy person like everybody else... It's a nice little starting place for going green. The "leaves" section rewards you with symbolic leaves for embracing personal practices which either conserve resources or reduce pollution. That's the gimmick of the application as advertised on your profile page by default (as with other Facebook applications, you can choose to hide it). It was filling out this section initially that lead me to the Conservation International (CI) website, which is good because the CI site is professional, comprehensive and high profile (note: it's not good that the "carbon" section of the I Am Green application still isn't up and running yet, which necessitated the external link).

Anyway... the Home page of I Am Green features news headlines posted by other Facebook users, and that day the headline "Nokia Goes Green with Forty Biodegradable Phone Models" lead me on a little journey concerning the environmental impact of various consumer electronic devices, and measures that some organizations are recommending and steps that some businesses are taking to help the planet. Below are some of the findings of that journey.

Nokia Phones - Good

By the end of 2008 Nokia will implement a number of environmentally friendlier measures in India, the world's largest mobile phone market. They will introduce 40 phone models with biodegradable components, and provide recycling bins through Nokia dealers in India for consumers to deposit used phones in. The new phone designs will incorporate biodegradable covers, recyclable batteries that use less harmful toxic materials, and more energy efficient accessories. Currently mobile phones need to be disposed of properly because they contain non-biodegradable and toxic materials such as cadmium or lithium in their batteries which can harm the environment. It should be the responsibility of each manufacturer to collect, dismantle, and recycle or dispose of their products' component parts. Nokia is moving in the right direction, and going several steps further with its Indian environmental project. For more information, see article or visit

Greenpeace Ratings on Consumer Electronics

The environmental watch-dog group publishes a "Guide to Greener Electronics" which is updated quarterly. Consumer electronic products from cellular phones to computers and audio appliances fall within its scope, with fourteen of the world's largest home electronics producers being rated on their overall, self-disclosed environmentally responsible practices. Nokia and Dell receive the highest, but not top ratings. Surprisingly, image-conscious Apple lags far behind in overall ranking, in the company of much less prestigious companies. For more information, check this link to the relevant page on the Greenpeace website.

Disposing of Consumer Electronics

According to an MSNBC article ("The 'Green' Way to Dump Electronic Junk"), most electronic gadgets contain toxic materials such as lead, beryllium, cadmium and flame retardants which if crushed or burned can seep into the environment and harm living organisms including humans. Sooner or later (much sooner if you're a trend-setter), we perceive our electronic equipment to be obsolete, and decide to upgrade. Or the stuff breaks and either isn't worth fixing or can't be revived. In the case of analog televisions, they really will be obsolete in North America starting February 2009, when broadcasters switch to digital technology. Digital converter boxes will be sold to enable people to keep their analog televisions working, but how long is that technology going to be going to be perceived as current? According to the American Environmental Protection Agency, 180 million computers sold in the United States alone between 1980 and 2004 are still in storage, waiting for someone to decide how to dispose of them.

What should we do with the phones, computers and televisions if not throw them in the trash? While the E.P.A .claims that most U.S. landfills include proper liners and groundwater testing to prevent leaching of harmful chemicals, and the Canadian Ministry of Environment states "Modern landfills are engineered to meet strict rules and standards to collect and treat leachate [contaminated water]." In any case, sending the e-junk straight to landfill obviously isn't ideal.

Forestalling the pile-up by selling operational cell phones and computers that aren't cool enough or efficient enough by some people's standards but not others is a way to make money. Donating operational equipment to poor people who can't afford to buy anything else is generous, can be done through various channels including manufacturers and sellers, and also delays the eventual toss-out. However, there will always be an end of the road for electronic gadgets, so they should all be recyclable and biodegradable! At the present time, making an effort to recycle non-biodegradable equipment requires some effort indeed. "Potentially, 100% of the materials used to manufacture consumer electronics can be recycled and diverted from land fill," according to SIMS Recycling Solutions in Ontario, a private sector company. The bottom line is someone has to pay for the recycling process. In the case of computers, data also needs to be erased.

Sellers and manufacturers of home electronics are increasingly aware of their responsibility to recycle their own products when their usefulness has been exhausted. Below is a partial list of companies willing to shoulder part or all of the recycling burden:

Dell - offers free recycling of Dell branded products with no purchase required and will recycle other branded products with the purchase of a new Dell computer.

AT&T and Best Buy - old cell phones, rechargeable batteries as well as printer ink cartridges can be dropped off at stores for recycling.

Motorola - has a recycling program that lets you print prepaid shipping labels online and send in any brand cell phone to be recycled.

Rogers - accepts old Rogers and Fido phones for recycling at their stores.

Apple - offers a free recycling program of old computers and displays with the purchase of a new Mac and a free iPod recycling program in the United States.

I think that donating anything useful to people who have a need for it, whether you are talking about cell phones, computers, or clothing, is a good idea for all sorts of reasons including ecological. However, recycling programs are a must, and biodegradable components are the next logical step. I'm glad that I have a Nokia phone, even though it's not new (and I plan to keep using it for as long as I can because it works very well) knowing that Nokia is an environmentally progressive company. I've been thinking that the next gadget I'd like to get might be an iPod. Now I know that Apple will recycle it, but that they score badly on almost all criteria monitored by Greenpeace. So, if I do decide that I need an MP3 player in my life, I'll do my homework first, not just about which brands perform well, but about which companies deserve my business based on their environmental policies.