Nokia, bioplastics and the big green responsibility debate

At present, the European Commission is considering applying stronger regulatory actions to try and address the 10.3 billion tonnes of electronic waste produced each year in Europe. Right now, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) guidelines have been implemented in many forms, which means that a manufacturer takes accountability for a product beyond the time of sale. This ranges from regulatory to negotiated and even voluntary models, depending on individual EU member countries. In many instance, EPR has already influenced the waste legislation or is being positioned to do so.

Once upon a time, Nokia was one of the worst culprits for having a poor attitude toward being sustainable, but has recently (well, over the past ten years) come along in leaps and bounds. Many of its ERP initiatives seem to have been put in place way before it was forced to (Germany and Spain are the two examples they reference). Its ‘Take-Back’ programme collects phones at nearly 5,000 locations globally and the company as a whole has employed a commitment to reduce absolute CO2 emissions by a minimum of 10% by the end of 2009 and 18% by 2010.

Part of the commitment to becoming ‘greener’ means not focusing purely on how to recycle a device once it’s become obsolete, but looking at the materials and components of the handset as well. Nokia first introduced products that were free of PVC — a harmful plastic often used to insulate wires in phones — at the beginning of 2006. Then, the Nokia 7100 Supernova followed suit last year and became the first product free of brominated compounds, antimony trioxide and chlorinated flame retardants.

Nokia isn’t alone; LG has also stopped using beryllium, known to cause nasty lung diseases. In fact, all of the top tier manufacturers are RoHS-complaint, which means that their phones contain no more than the agreed-upon levels of lead, cadmium, mercury and other harmful materials. It’s actually safe to assume that no new handset is going to be produced with hazardous chemicals in.

Both Nokia and LG, as well as several other manufacturers, are working on biodegradable plastics and renewable sources, but haven’t rolled them out on mass yet. The Nokia 3100 Evolve for one has a bio-cover made from 50 percent renewable raw materials, but this is not without its problems.

As well as getting hold of enough of these resources in the first place, one problem is that a bioplastics should ideally be composted and cannot be recycled alongside other plastics (different types of resin you see). When mixed, bioplastics are in fact more harmful than they are useful, and without an advanced infrastructure in place to separate them, the correct identification and sorting becomes a difficult task.

Now, Nokia supports individual producer responsibility, so they – like others – spent an extraordinary amount in overcoming these hurdles. The company has invested in creating a device that could be made entirely from recycled materials, the aim of which is to avoid virgin materials and to divert waste from going into landfills. The main outcome of this project had been the ‘Remade’ concept device, which uses recycled materials from metal cans, plastic bottles, and car tires.

On a more touchy-feely note, it has also developed the Eco Sensor Concept – a mobile phone and sensing device that will collect environmental data that can be shared with others, increasing environmental awareness.

The company also says that “in order for us to carry out our own responsibilities we also need the help of others in the value chain, like consumers and retailers, and their commitment to bringing back obsolete mobile devices for responsible recycling”. I’m in full support of this, and I think Nokia is right in saying that co-operation eventually leads to a situation where recycling becomes easier for everyone as its commonplace.

To further speed this up and create a sense of shared liability, one of the specific things that the European Commission are threatening to do is clamp down on the proliferation of mobile phone chargers if the manufacturers don’t self-regulate. Quick to respond to this, Nokia launched the N79 Eco model, which simply comes without a charger (customers are expected to retain one from a previous device). With 15 million phones upgraded each year in the UK alone, that’s a lot of chargers milling around (I must have four or five at home). Additionally, the AC-8 uses just 0.03W in no-load mode (the amount the charger uses if you forget to unplug it from socket when the phone is fully charged). This is 90-95% less than what typical chargers can waste.

Nokia’s take on recycling is based around ‘lifecycle thinking’ (minimising the environmental impacts across the lifecycle of a product). The only thing slight concern I have with this approach is that applying conventional life cycle assessment, and assigning environmental impacts to producers and consumers can lead to double-counting. I’m not saying that it means all of the company’s efforts are wasted (no pun intended), but it’s this slight concern that makes me want to hear someone from within talk about it a bit more. Integrate these goals and objectives into normal briefings, don’t just paste lots of text onto a briefing document. There’s a fantastic portal on, but it isn’t immediately obvious, you have to scroll to the bottom, click on corporate responsibility and then choose the right tab.

Like Nokia, Sony Ericsson has a large ‘sustainable’ section on their site, but it seems to have been created purely for the sake of having it rather than a core part of their thinking. Maybe that’s just the way it’s presented. Motorola is the same, with their environmental objectives hidden behind three clicks and listed amidst reams of text.

I’m not as hardcore as many other green bloggers, so from my perspective, the ERP work from Nokia and research into biodegradable plastics from many is a good start.

However, though concept products like the Nokia ones mentioned above and Samsung’s Blue Earth have been shown at nearly every mobile-related trade show over the past few years, but predominately as a profile raising exercise than anything else.

When it comes to nailing the ultimate green concept, manufacturers are really struggling to push it that little bit harder and make it relevant for mass production. So surely, making consumers more aware of what they are all trying to achieve will encourage the kind of responsible behaviour that is still required to make any kind of change realistic.

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