The smart phone industry entices us with more features and compact design with every new model released. It’s not commonly advertised, but their many innovations are reducing resource use and waste in these two ways- less quantity of objects because of integrated technologies and less materials consumed to make a devices smaller and smaller.
An article published in the International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology investigates the effect of the technology convergence- the integrating of multiple devices into a single unit. A smart phone that displaces more than two or three single devices will require less new or recycled plastic, aluminum, gold, molybdenum, and vanadium. These include a calculator, music player, computer, camera, television, GPS tracker and telephone. The hazardous waste, resource depletion and toxicity potential from heavy metals in electronic devices are lessened as more physical features are merged. 1
The point and shoot camera market has seen its biggest decline is sales with a 20% drop in the last 12 months 2. GPS companies, like Garmin, have seen similar declines of their in-car units every quarter for the past few years. I haven’t replaced my digital camera, alarm clock, calculator, TV, or DVD player for almost 10 years because of the iPhone. We are evolving to require less separate electronic devices.
The second aspect is that the size and weight continues to rapidly decline. In 2002 my main home computer weighted 34.7 pounds (15.7 kg) and six years later in 2008, it was only 4.5 pounds (6.7 kg)3. That’s a 30 pound or 87% reduction of weight extending to many levels of a computer including less materials, less processing, engineering time, manufacturing, shipping and onward through it’s life cycle. I recently did a teardown of a MacMini and found hundreds of mechanical parts that have been eliminated since Apple removed the DVD drive in 2013 (image below).
Their DVD drive has two electric motors, plastic and metal rivets, chassis, gears, copper wires, and even a linear actuating assembly- all of which are no longer made, transported or discarded. There are ecologic and economic effects to this downsizing. Apple’s Phil Schiller said that “in general, it’s a good idea to remove these rotating medias” because they are bulky and use power. Such an engineering decision helps the company “create products that are smaller, lighter and consume less power”.
It’s clear that the best way to reduce waste is to prevent it from entering the system. At the root level of the mining and transportation of materials, prevention is more effective than repurposing and recycling.
“preventing waste through efficient use of resources and raw materials is the best option. Re-using discarded goods without reprocessing or remanufacture is assumed to provide greater savings in resource consumption and is given priority over recycling (Wolsink, 2010)4 .
Thinner laptops mean less plastic injected chassis, smaller chipboards, and less packaging. By integrating powerful micro cameras and GPS tracking into our ‘multi tool’ smart phones, we are creating a positive reduction to many aspects of our resource use and waste. The rate at which we consume each new device may counteract the efficiencies of design mentioned above. Attacking the current mode of design obsolescence in electronics and adapting more of a refurbished ideal could further limit our need for raw materials.
I for one am thrilled by the technology convergence- I now have far fewer batteries to buy, charge, keep track of and dispose.
2 (full data can be read at CIPA) http://www.cipa.jp/stats/dc_e.html 2016
3 The Apple iMac G3 “Power PC” 15-Inch ( color shell – Late 2002) 34.7 lb (15.7kg)
The Apple MacBook “Core 2 Duo” 2.4 13-Inch (Unibody – Late 2008/Aluminum) 4.5 lb (6.7 kg)
4 Waste management hierarchy (UNEP, 2011).