Electronic waste is an important sustainability issue. Consumers want the latest gadgets, but what happens to all of the old cell phones/laptops/tablets when users upgrade? Some people have a collection of obsolete phones in a desk drawer, some people donate them, and some try to recycle them.

There are gadgets out there that do try to be eco-friendly in their design, like smart phones made out of recycled plastics and delivered in recycled packaging. (Examples: Samsung Replenish and Motorola Citrus) Even so, there is no phone I know of that has completely reusable or recyclable components. If I’m wrong, let me know! There are recyclable parts in a phone, like aluminum and so forth. But there is some not-so-good stuff in there, like lead and mercury. In the e-waste world, cell phones are particularly conspicuous because of the comparatively shorter time they are used by consumers than other tech devices. The most wasteful among us “upgrade” as often as our providers’ contracts allow.

Handling e-waste is a growing business opportunity, which is certainly a good thing. A local company, Tech Disposal Inc., was recently bought by E-Waste Systems Inc. of London. EWSI says that the new iPhone 4S release could cause 200 million pounds of e-waste to be created over the next two years, even though the reception to Apple’s announcement was a bit on the “meh” side, compared to past releases.

In conjunction with e-waste disposal companies, designers of cell phones should take a look at how to improve cell phone manufacture so that more and more components may be recovered. Life cycle assessment is key to making tech greener; what will happen to a phone when it’s broken or obsolete is something that should be thought through as the device is still on the drawing board. This “cradle-to-cradle” design philosophy is not new, but not as widely used as it should be.

I read a wonderful interview with writer Allison Arieff on The Atlantic‘s website, and found the following quote apropos to this issue:

Making sustainability a trend has minimized its relevance and stymied its progress. … It’s a notion that you can go green by buying more stuff. We’ll always need things, but we need a real focus on making those things less expendable, less, well, “trendy,” and more efficient, healthier, durable, built to last.