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Mobile Phone Case Study : Comparison of ecological impacts and equivalent CO2 emissions of mobile phones marketed as 'eco-friendly' over those not marketed as 'eco-friendly'

Kimi Ceridon,   Kalepa Tech LLC

Mobile phone users in the United State grew from 34 million to 203 million from 1999–2009 [1].  Awareness of the material consumption, energy use and e-waste represents by this compels some consumers to purchase ‘eco-friendly’ products believing it reduces ecological impacts.  Using a screening Life Cycle Assessment tool, the effectiveness of commonly employed ‘eco-friendly’ practices is evaluated.  

This case study examines ecological impacts and equivalent CO2 emissions for mobile phone components, assemblies and life cycle phases to determine if 'eco-friendly' practices offer impact reductions. 'Eco-friendly' practices examined are alternative plastic housings, recycling programs, recycled packaging materials and power consumption reductions.  While ‘eco-friendly’ practices offer reductions in ecological impacts, they do not significantly reduce equivalent CO2 emissions relative to phones not marketed as ‘eco-friendly’.  Furthermore, it appears the most effective ‘eco-friendly’ practice is to reduce power consumption.

Examination of each practice offers insight into its effectiveness. Using recycled plastic housings reduces ecological impacts by up to 50% over a non-recycled plastic housing due to reductions in ocean acidification. Using an approximated phone assembly, recycling offers 66% reduction in ecological impacts and 5% reduction in equivalent CO2 emissions over incineration.  These results are limited due to caveats of take back programs and limitations in process options found in Sustainable Minds [2] LCA software.  Specific packaging and instructions scenarios that incorporate recycled feedstocks can result in more than 90% reductions in equivalent CO2 emissions over non-recycled feedstocks.  Reductions in equivalent CO2 emissions can be 80% more those due to recycled plastic housing.  Finally, use-phase ecological impacts and equivalent CO2 emissions overshadow those of the other practices combined.  Including the worst cases of each design practices in a combined evaluation, shows energy consumption comprises more than 80% of environmental impacts and up to 98% of CO2 emissions.  This reveals the other ‘eco-friendly’ practices offer only marginal reductions in impacts and greatest impact reductions are achieved by focusing on reductions in energy consumption.

In conclusion, considering only material, manufacturing and end-of-life phases, reducing or eliminating packaging and encouraging recycling are more effective at addressing environmental impacts and climate change than changing housing materials to recycled or bio-based plastics.  Expanding the system boundaries to include use-phase, these practices have little impact.  Reduction in power consumption offers the largest reduction in impacts.  Each percent improvement in energy efficiency results in a corresponding reduction in impacts. Other studies, such as the 2008 paper by Scharnhorst on Telecommunications [3], indicate the issue is more complex, which suggests an expanded, comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment should be completed on the findings of this study.

Citations:

  1. Afareen. (24 April 2009). The Life Cycle Assessment of a Cell Phone. AssociatedContent.com. Posted to
  2. Sustainable Minds LLC. Learning Center Information and Software Information Retrieved 7 May 2010
  3. Scharnhorst W (2008) : Life Cycle Assessment in the Telecommunication Industry: A Review. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 13 (1) 75-86 DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1065/lca2006.11.285