Eco-friendly Phones: How Green Are They Really?

BlogHer Original Post

Decided to upgrade to a new greener phone for the new year -- only to get confused by all the conflicting green tech advice out there? You're not alone. Research eco-friendly cell phones, and you'll start getting bombarded with marketing speak about bioplastics and, I kid you not, seed-embedded paper outlining green features.

As with most green tech news, green phone news often tends to be overhyped, with lots of tough-to-research claims and even more unanswered questions. So how did I deal with all this excess of info? By just not buying a new phone, of course. I'm proud to say that I kept my old, beaut up LG LX125 (right) for 3+ years -- since Sept. 2006, when I first switched to Working Assets, which has since become CREDO!

But finally, I had to deal with my stance against planned obsolescence, a.k.a. research-averse laziness. My beloved LG started randomly turning itself off, taking unplanned snoozes, letting me know I can rage against the machine only for so long....

So when Sprint contacted me about trying out its new "green" Reclaim cell phone (left) -- complete with Twitter and Facebook features, a QWERTY keyboard, and a lot more techy features than what I'd been living with -- I jumped at the chance.

Of course, once it arrived, I started realizing that my definition of green exceeded my cell phone's -- though the Reclaim does have some good features, like a 40% corn-based plastic casing, low standby power consumption, and 70% recycled packaging materials. Plus, the phone's free of phthalates, polyvinyl chloride -- and almost free of brominated flame retardants -- and priced at an affordable $49.99 with a two-year service from Sprint. And from a tech-standpoint, the phone works great! I tweeted merrily through the Great L.A. Walk.

But does a greenish cover a greenish cell phone make? Only extremely partially. Jaymi Heimbuch of Treehugger writes that because "the competition isn't very tough when it comes to eco-friendly phones," Reclaim can claim greenishness -- but still has a long way to go:

For all the Reclaim's greener features, we're still waiting for a phone that is made of 100% recycled and recyclable materials, packaged in a way that it is zero waste, runs on renewable energy, and all those other cradle-to-cradle features we so often discuss.... If you must buy new, then a phone like the Reclaim is a decent bet, even if it doesn't meet our gold standard just yet.

Because even with a corn-polymer cover, a lot of questions remain to be asked. Was the corn, for example, GMO corn sprayed with pesticides -- whose industrial uses now could be raising food prices and increasing the number of people going hungry? How exactly will these new plastic composites get recycled -- and what products will be made out of them? What are the costs -- both environmental and economical -- of the recycling process, and how will that weigh in to the types and numbers of products that get produced from these recycled materials? Will recycling these little outside covers even be worth it if we factor in the energy invested into taking apart and sorting the covers, the shipping emissions created by moving these little bits back and forth from (probably) China, and the resources going into the actual recycling process?

I'm not dissing the smaller green advances made by the cell phone manufacturing industry. In fact, I'm all for the phone industry starting to look at recycled materials, energy efficiency, and other similar features. And I'm happy to hear about new greenovations, like:

>> Motorola’s Eco-Friendly W233 Renew, which Jennifer McDougal of JD mag says has a casing made with 100% recycled materials and comes in a cardboard box.

>> Touchsreen phone Samsung Blue Earth, which Damon Brown of PC World says has a cover made from recycled water bottles, comes in a box made of recyclable materials, and boasts a solar panel on the back that will charge the battery.

>> Sony Ericsson's Elm and HazelBoth, which are made of recycled plastic, free from hazardous chemicals, and "use chargers that are more energy efficient than standard chargers," according to Jaymi Heimbuch at Treehugger.

But green goes beyond the cover and packaging. What about energy efficiency of these phones while in use? And more broadly, what about the health effects of cell phone radiation? The political implications of the telecommunication industry's lobby? The unstandardized cell phone chargers that have us all buying separate accouterments for every techy item we buy, as Robin Shreeves points out in Sustainablog?

Honestly, the greening of cell phones may really have more to do with your usage practices than with the cell phone you buy. Simply unplugging your phone charger when it's not being used to prevent vampire power leaching, or recycling your phone at the end of its life instead of sending it to the landfills, are some of the biggest eco-actions you can take in terms of your cell phone habits.

Another important eco-resolution is to simply the phone you've got -- as you may've been able to tell by the fact I kept my beat-up LG for so long. Earlier this month, I finally decided to upgrade to a Blackberry. Why a Blackberry? I could get that phone through my current cell phone service provider, CREDO, a green-conscious company that pushes for progressive causes!

I've raved about CREDO often -- as has Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish, BlogHer's other green contributing editor. Beth says "CREDO is in line with my values more than any other phone company and where they're putting their money is where I'm putting mine." Considering the fact that many telecommunications company put their money toward lobbying against net neutrality and for more conglomeration, CREDO's a company that cuts through the static to give thinking cell phone owners a less regressive option.

Beth didn't opt for a Blackberry -- or for any new phones marketed as green with fancy bioplastic covers: "It sounds better than it is, and it's a scheme for people to think they're doing something good for the environment by buying something new." Instead, Beth has a refurbished Moto Q9C. "The reason I chose this one is b/c it's refurbished and I didn't want to get a new phone."

How should you pick your phone? IMHO, I would pick the phone company first, since that's where you'll be sending money every month. Beyond that, things get murky. I'm totally with Beth about buying refurbished so you're not buying an all-new product, yet I also feel buying as top-of-the-line product as possible helps keep a phone un-obsolete for the longest time possible. What we do agree on is the fact that it's better to focus on reducing and reusing -- whether by buying refurbished or by refusing to upgrade until absolutely necessary -- than on recycling or buying new green products.

In a world where eco-metrics are hard to come by, it's really difficult to pick what exact product will have the least impact on the environment while servicing your connectivity needs. I'd be curious to hear what phones other green-minded BlogHers own, and what decision-making process BlogHers go through before deciding on their next tech gadget. Share your tech opinions in the comments!
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BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel also blogs at greenLAgirl.com.

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