Taking Steps Toward Greener Smartphones

Smartphones and other devices are getting more eco-friendly – but there’s still work to do to make them sustainable

By on November 12, 2014

Less than 20 percent of electronic waste in the US is recycled, with the rest going directly into landfills and incinerators. Each year, about 130 million cell phones are discarded in the United States. While this “technical trash” accounts for only a small percent of cubic square footage of landfill contents in general, electronic trash is responsible for 70 percent of toxic landfill waste. This means the lead and other heavy metals from non-recycled smartphones will likely seep into the local soil and water supply. 

“We are at the very dawn of creating a smartphone that is sustainable in a meaningful way,” says Alex Scott, senior editor of Chemical & Engineering News, in the United Kingdom. “Currently, phone manufacturers are making phones that are slightly less bad than the previous generation of phones,” Scott says. “But there is a leap forward that is required before phones are sustainable.” Sustainable means that phones last longer, are easier to repair and can be recycled when replaced.

Kyle Wiens, a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and CEO of ifixit.com, a site that connects people who need information on how to repair things, says the most important factor in phone sustainability is that the device is durable and easy to repair. “The battery and the screen – the most common areas of phone failure -- should be easy for the user to replace,” Wiens says. Wein notes phones that do a good job in this area include the Nexus 5, iPhone 6 and Galaxy S4. 

Another bright spot is work by the independent safety science company UL, which is drafting standards that will help consumers identify sustainable cell phones and tablets. Ultimately, though, the drive toward greener phones is coming from environmentalists and not consumers, Wiens says. “Sustainability isn't a major factor for consumers when deciding to purchase a smartphone,” Wiens says. “Hopefully it will be more important to people in the future.”

Until the time when there is a greater ubiquity of recycling options, and increasingly indestructible phones, Verizon Wireless currently offers two paths that are way better than the landfill. Our trade-in programs offer incentives for trading in old devices to be recycled, but also offer a more impactful option: Donate that phone to the Hopeline program where it becomes an empowering device for survivors of domestic violence. 

It could be that the future of electronic recycling is less about the landfill and more about empowering those in need. Let’s make that happen. 

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This piece is part of Verizon Wireless' #PowerfulTech series. Share your thought, tips and comments on Twitter using the hashtag #PowerfulTech.

Also, check out these stories from earlier in the series:

Tags: PowerfulTech, Sustainability, IEEE, ifixit.com, Environmental Protection Agency, Recycle, Hopeline, Nexus 5, iPhone 6, Galaxy 4