PAUL FIRTH: How could we design a more sustainable smartphone?

PAUL FIRTH, manager of science and research for UL Environment

By definition, the most sustainable phone is the one that has the least impacts from a life cycle and human health perspective, while maintaining the best possible functional use.

The screen takes on a lot of the environment impact. First, there’s the energy that goes into manufacturing the screen. And then energy usage is dependent on the screen size. Screens are getting bigger—but what’s interesting about that is that, at times, a bigger screen on a smartphone allows you to use it instead of a computer. There’s an energy benefit to it that typically falls outside the traditional impact assessment.

The sustainable smartphone has to draw its energy in a highly efficient manner. Energy is now delivered from batteries more efficiently, and better battery chemistry reduces environmental impact. There are even smartphones with recharging panels.

The design or durability of a smartphone and its ability to have a second life is a huge factor. You can define that in a variety of ways. You can send some phones to take-back programs that repurpose the parts or send others to reuse programs. In an ideal world I’d like to be able to refurbish my phones with replacement parts I could plug in as necessary. By reusing, regenerating or refurbishing the smartphone, you’re giving the phone new life when it would otherwise have entered the waste stream.

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