How green is your technology? asks Nigel Kendall

Attempts by corporate giants to prove their green credentials are often met with suspicion — usually with good reason. At a recent UK press event, representatives of the Japanese electronics giant Toshiba spent 30 minutes regaling journalists with new technologies — from batteries to products with better power consumption, new lightbulbs and toxin-free laptops — in a bid to emphasise their eco-friendliness.

As a gift, those attending were presented with a 2.5 inch external hard drive. It came encased in a heavy-duty plastic box three times the size of the device, and complete with a 120-page instruction booklet in 11 languages. The instructions could be boiled down to six words: “Plug it in to a computer.”

This is a fairly typical tale, and Toshiba is by no means alone in declaring its conversion to more ecologically friendly processes one minute, while acting utterly thoughtlessly the next.

The story also illustrates an essential truth about green issues and technology. They are mutually incompatible. If you want a green life, drop everything and go live in a cave. Those of us unwilling to do so are in a permanent position of compromise, all we can hope to do is minimise the environmental damage we are causing.

“There is no such thing as a green product,” says the head of sustainability at Sony Ericsson, Mats Pellbäck Scharp. “What we are doing is taking every small step towards a better product by reducing the total amount of impact that a product has.”

Over the past ten years, Pellbäck Scharp pointed out, Sony Ericsson, like many other companies in its field, has worked to eliminate toxic chemicals from its manufacturing processes, including PVC, brominated flame retardants and cadmium (from batteries).

Like most technologies when they first appear, mobile phones have long been the subject of concern, ranging from now discredited theories about brain-heating and transmitter masts causing cancer, to panic about their environmental impact, especially arsenic and mercury, which are used in LCD screens.

“An average mobile phone contributes 8kg of CO2 per year to a user’s carbon footprint,” Pellbäck Scharp says. “But the average carbon footprint is eight tonnes per year, so we are talking about 0.008 per cent.”

The figure broadly tallies with an estimate from his rival Apple, which puts the environmental impact of an iPhone over a three-year lifecycle at 55kg of CO2, including manufacture and use.

“More than ten years ago,” Pellbäck Scharp adds, “we started looking at the charging on the energy side and the chemicals on the manufacturing side and the toxic impact and working conditions in the supply chain on the social side.”

Given all these improvements, you might expect the environmental pressure group Greenpeace to be delighted. It’s not.

“These companies are still encouraging people to ditch phones after one or two years of use. We would like to see phone companies use more modular design, so that you could upgrade a mobile phone with more memory without buying a new one,” Iza Kruszewska, Greenpeace’s international toxics campaigner, says. “It becomes more difficult, of course, when a phone is sold as a lifestyle accessory, by its look, rather than by its new technical features.”

For the record, Sony Ericsson came second in Greenpeace’s annual review of technology companies, published in January, behind Nokia, which scored highly for phasing out hazardous chemicals and taking a proactive approach to recycling.

“If you are looking for a greener mobile phone,” says Kruszewska, “there’s often a trade-off. If you want more energy efficiency you are more likely to have toxic chemicals in the product. If you don’t want toxic chemicals, energy efficiency is damaged. We want companies to do both, but we’re not there yet.”

One well-worn solution to this dilemma comes from the same discipline that has helped cause the relentless rate of change in the first place: marketing. Make green thinking more attractive to consumers and it becomes more profitable; make it more profitable and manufacturers join the hunt for the green pound.

The latest research suggests that Kruszewska is right — we’re not there yet. In a survey of mobile users in North America last year, ABI Research found that 7 per cent would be willing to pay a premium for an eco-friendly handset, and a further 40 per cent would choose a green handset over a conventional one if it offered the same features. In other words, less than half of users care enough to make a greener choice.

In the study’s conclusion, Michael Morgan, an analyst, says: “The public is largely uninformed about availability: only 4 per cent said they were ‘very familiar’ with green handsets.”

In Europe, the situation is slightly better. The Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2008 (known as RoHS) lay down strict limits for manufacturers on the use of hazardous materials such as lead, PVC, mercury and cadmium. Since it is in manufacturers’ economic interests to maintain a global line of products, the EU directive has now been universally adopted.

But can we do more? Six years ago, a team from Warwick University developed a prototype of a biodegradable mobile phone with sunflower seeds implanted in its casing. Once the phone had ended its useful life, the idea was that users should bury it and wait for the sunflowers to sprout. It’s a lovely idea. But will it ever happen?

“We work very hard on plastics technology, and the case of our new Aspen mobile phone is 50 per cent derived from recycled plastics,” Pellbäck Scharp, of Sony Ericsson, says. “But we do not currently use corn-based plastics or bioplastics because that would compete with food production.”

And what about the biodegradable phone? “We have studied this, of course,” he adds. “Our focus on biodegradability is with the packaging, which is now made from recycled materials and designed to biodegrade safely. But we do not want the mobile phone itself to start growing or degrading in the middle of a rainy season.”

And sunflower seeds? Pellbäck Scharp laughs. “This cannot happen. International law prohibits the cross-border transportation of seeds by individuals.”?

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