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Modular Phones, E-Waste, and the Shift Towards Sustainable Electronics

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"Better and faster can happen sustainably ... cheaper is going to be hard."

When Jonas Allen toured the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, the industry's annual new product rollout, he brought a slightly different perspective to bear on the cavalcade of booths, black boxes and consumer hype. While attendees at the Las Vegas Convention center took in the sensory overload, with televisions that can roll up like newspaper, the latest smart home devices, and product demos jostling for attention, Allen, director of marketing at the Green Electronics Council, was thinking about products with a slightly different point of view. While most were squarely focused on the moment, and the promise of future technology that had finally arrived, he was also thinking about the actual future of these products, which in many cases, could be landfills or the back of someone's drawer. His organization, which has been around for a decade, has seen the consumer electronics industry adapt better sustainability practices—less toxic waste, more recycled plastic, and better packaging—but he feels there's a lot more work to be done, especially in the environmental and social realms.

"You have a kajillion gigabit processor to play Candy Crush, that's a little bit of overkill, no?" he says. "Moore's Law exists, but perhaps it should eventually become Moore's Suggestion. I'm walking around CES, and there's a lot of focus on 360-degree cameras and virtual reality, a lot on data collection, which means there more need for processing power. There are a lot of smart people out there coming up with great technology, but to what end? The conversation needs to start changing from what's feasible to what's meaningful, which is an important inflection point for the tech industry. There's a bigger conversation, from people asking why and how, that comes from these questions of sustainability."

There's no doubt we're living in a world dominated by mobile gadgets, new electronics, ever-stronger (and smaller) computers, and a wealth of plastic. Smart phones sales increased to 352 million units worldwide in the third quarter of last year (more than one for every U.S. citizen), and 253 million televisions sold in 2014. Along with new computers and a forthcoming wave of smart home devices, billions of people worldwide will soon be updating their home and personal technology. And that, inevitably, means older models will find there way into a growing, and increasingly complicated, e-waste stream. According to the United Nations Global E-Waste Monitor, roughly 46 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2014. Only 7.1 tons were recycled or reused, slightly more than the 6.6 millions tons of screens that ended up in trash heaps that year. Those numbers are expected to rise by 4 to 5 percent annually for the foreseeable future, and the excitement over new technology at CES suggests as much.

"In the last 10 years, recycling has gone up significantly," says Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan, founder and CEO of Eco-Catalyst, a consulting company that helps electronics companies increase recycling and design more sustainable products. "But there's a lot of room for growth and a lot of challenges. Recycling is expensive, and products often aren't designed to make recycling easy. Product design should be improved to make disassembly easier. And, of course, manufacturers are always focused on selling new products"

With emerging market growth and consumers constantly swapping cell phones for the newest model, this waste seem like an inevitable and unfortunate side effect of a high-tech society. But over the past few years, a group of entrepreneurs, designers and social enterprises have begun to build what they believe is a more sustainable alternative. A series of modular smartphones, which feature replaceable parts, greener supply chains, and longer lifespans, hope to pioneer a new generation of replaceable, fixable and longer-lasting gadgets, with technology that could eventually be used for everything from televisions to laptops. While these new or forthcoming products are far from making a dent in the industry's dominant model, backers suggest they presage a serious shift in the way we interact with technology, one that we have to make.

"If you become a player yourself, you can challenge the current industry," says Bibi Bleekemolen, who heads impact development at Fairphone, a Dutch enterprise selling a modular smartphone with a transparent, more environmentally friendly supply chain. "We're a social movement that wants to change the electronics industry, and now we can directly engage with the suppliers and work to make improvements."

Fairphone, which just started shipping the second version of its modular smartphone, grew out of the Waag Society, a digital media institution in Amsterdam that was campaigning against conflict minerals. Numerous social and environmental costs are associated with the raw materials and rare minerals utilized common to consumer electronics, from unfair labor practices in mines, pollution from degrading devices, and the energy used in producing circuit boards. Since the first great wave of consumer electronics came out in the 1950s and '60s, the e-waste problem has evolved, and gotten more complicated. According to Anna Dengler, Director of Sustainability at Great Forest Inc., older equipment with vacuum tubes, toxic lead, and mercury, have been replaced by devices with plastics and rare earth metals. But these materials can still cause environmental damage, especially when the plastic cases of televisions, phones, or computers are melted to recover the valuable metal inside.

After examining the issue three years ago, Fairphone decided that, instead of campaigning for industry players to change their ways, they could have more impact on the way metals are mined by developing their own phone. A dramatic Guardian headline from a 2013 essay summed up the challenge: "My search for a smartphone that is not soaked in blood." Years later, they've established their own supply chain, as they've extensively documented on their site, starting at the Chinese factories run by Hi-P, a Singapore-based firm, that build the phone, and spiraling out to hundreds of suppliers.

"A phone and an electronics device is something completely different than a fair trade banana," says Bleekemolen. "A banana grows on a tree, and then four or five steps later, it's on a supermarket shelf. A phone has hundreds of components, all with their own manufacturers and suppliers."

Bleekemolen admits the phone, which retails starting at €525 (slightly less than the cost of a new iPhone in Germany), can be used across Europe, and is comparable in performance to the iPhone, isn't totally sustainable. Now that they've released the second version of their phone (they've sold 20,000 and shipped roughly a quarter to consumers), the company plans to focus on making the supply chain more fair.

But the phone also contains another key design element that makes it much more earth friendly; modularity, the ability to swap out and replace parts. All of the main components can be individually repaired and fixed; the screen can be replaced with a new part, available over the internet for €85, and a simple screwdriver, in just a few minutes. While a greener, more transparent supply chain makes a difference, the phone's biggest environmental impact may be preventing another phone from being made.

Dr. Julie Sinistore works for thinkstep, a consulting firm that advises companies on how to create more sustainable products. She's often tasked with life cycle assessment, or determining the total impact of a product from design, development and assembly to disposal. When she looks at the the real energy usage and carbon footprint created by a phone or television, the main impact stems from the way people use the device, and the power required during the manufacturing process. Semiconductors take a massive amount of energy to create. The most innovative thing that can be done about electronics manufacturing is often greening the grid of the plant that makes the device. Short of that, it's changing the way people use their device.

"Think about the refrigerator that's going to communicate wirelessly and tell you when you're out of milk," she says. "How much energy is that going to take up when everyone is using it?"

Fairphone is the first product to market with clearly modular architecture, but it won't be the last. Phonebloks, a project by another Dutch designer, Dave Hakkens, helped popularize the concept back in 2013. Frustrated by his broken Canon camera—the industrial design student wanted to fix the broken motor, but couldn't get the company to send him a replacement part and had to trash the entire thing—he decided to create a system of modular electronics so others in a similar state could actually fix the costly machine they had purchased.

"When I launched the idea, I was looking at every product in general," he says. "I started thinking about the way technology is headed. If we have a wifi fridge, and some microchip breaks, does that mean we need to throw it all away?"

Hakkens decided a phone would be the best place to start, since technology is easier to scale up. After he launched a campaign to publicize the idea in 2013, it quickly gained traction. His idea, explained in a YouTube video quickly racked up more than one million views, extensive media attention, and the attention of tech companies such as Motorola and Google, which has started to work on its own modular phone project.

Hakkens is quick to point out that he himself won't be building a phone—he lacks the technical know-how. Google announced its intention to build its own version of a modular phone, part of an initiative called Project Ara. The company had initially set a deadline of 2015 to test prototypes, but has now pushed back the date to 2016. But Hakkens is still hopeful.

"It's a futuristic look at technology." he says. "When I first came up with it, I could only hope that a big company would pick it up, since it challenges their ecosystem and the way they make money. Until Google launches, I think other companies are going to wait. Once it's proven to be working, than others will get on board."

Other companies, of course, aren't waiting. In Finland, a startup called Circular Devices just crowdfunded the PuzzlePhone, another crowdfunded modular phone promising customization and more sustainability. Built from three main parts—a Spine that contains speakers, basic structure and the LCD screen, a Heart consisting of the battery and secondary electronics, and the Brain, which contains the processor and camera—the device will begin shipping this fall. In an interesting twist, the project is also reusing engineering talent. Many of the Finnish designers working at the company's base in Oulu, including Tapani Jokinen, the Vice President of Design, are ex-Nokia employees

"Modularity opens up infinite possibilities to create something different, a great source of innovation and destruction," says Jokinen. "It'll really change how traditional phone manufacturers work."

Jokinen says that the idea of modular phones is far from new; he's tried to create similar devices in the past, as have other companies. But only in the last few years have electronics advanced to the point where a device with the specs of PuzzlePhone would be anything but big and bulky.

Indiegogo campaign video for PuzzlePhone

The PuzzlePhone's makeup and service model, similar to the Fairphone and Phonebloks concept and comparable in performance to a current iPhone, will run on Android. The components, such as the screen, which supposedly boasts a 10-year lifespan, are built to last. But they're also built to be swapped out, upgraded, and customized. Since it's built on a Open Standard, the PuzzlePhone could potentially create an ecosystem for accessories similar to the App store. As Jokinen sees it, customers will want a more personal connection with a phone they'll hopefully be holding onto for years.

"The way people are connected with their products are changing a lot," he says. "It's not about the stories the brands or companies are telling about their products, it's the stories the end users are telling."

As these modular startups gain ground, and companies like Google continue experimenting with the concept, the technology will only improve, and potentially expand to more and more product categories. Already, the recently announced Nascent Objects platform offers a customizable system of electronic modules that can be used to assemble a variety of consumer products (one of the first examples being showcased is the timely Droppler, a device that measures water usage).

Others see more sustainable materials as a key, and complementary, part of this more sustainable manufacturing process. Dr. Janet Scott, a chemist who focuses on sustainable materials, is working on a research project called CLEVER (Closed Loop Emotionally Valuable E-waste Recovery) at the University of Bath in England. Her colleagues are developing an ecosystem for electronics, with a particular focus on consumer usage patterns and materiality. Scott believes shifting the way we produce the "skeleton" of the phone, from oil-based plastic to cellulose-based bioplastics, can make a huge dent in the environmental cost of mobile technology. With a new generation of bioplastics that can be dissolved via a simple enzyme, the difficulty and cost of recycling precious metals goes down significantly.

"We're going to see a lot more diversification of materials in the future," says Scott. "There's a lot happening in this area, and we're going to see much more use of materials that are biodegradable and nature-derive. The big challenge, however, is, will it be adopted by a big industry player?"

Any sustainable shift will also require a massive change in the way products are created. Pamela Gordon, a senior consultant at Antea Group, which advises companies about sustainability strategies, says that 80 percent of a product's environmental impact is decided at the design stage.

"It's a mind shift from more stuff to more customer value, that's the principle that we need to embrace, in all parts of the consumer electronics industry," she says. "Instead of a knee-jerk reaction, making more things, we need to make consumer's work and personal lives better. Ask 'How can our company make our customer's work lives better,' not just the knee jerk reaction of new, different and more."

The companies behind these modular phone concepts see their entries into the market as a first step. Bleekemolen believes the supply chain set up for Fairphone 2 has made a positive impact, but there's much more work to do. And while they're still shipping phones, the favorable response so far has already got them thinking about expanding beyond Europe. She believes it's a tangible platform, one that can set a model and improve the performance of the electronics industry.

For Jokinen, the release of PuzzlePhone has already shown him change isn't just a good idea, but a concrete reality.

"We sold more than 350 million phones when I worked for Nokia," he says. "Think about all the waste I've created. It's crazy. If you think about the way we use our designers today, it's a total waste of creativity. Every designer has to understand their responsibility. There's another side to the coin, the afterlife of your product. When we start designing with that in mind, I get excited."

· CES 2016: The Smart Home Developments to Watch [Curbed]