Modular Smartphones Have the Potential to Cut Electronic Waste

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Towards the end of the last decade, recycling of electronic waste in the United States of America stood at a pitiful 13.6% 1. Out of 2.8 million tonnes of waste, that accounted for just over 360,000 tonnes. In terms of mobile phones, some sources believe the number of phones thrown away in the US each day is over 400,000 2. Landfills are reaching breaking point, and recycling phones is becoming big business. Today’s smartphones, for the most part, are made as monolithic pieces of metal, plastic and glass and are notoriously un-upgradeable. This is in part due to consumers’ desire for thinner, lighter devices, but a more cynical person might add that it is good business for manufacturers if customers keep buying entirely new phones every year or two.

In September 2013, Dave Hakkens, a designer, started a Thunderclap campaign (essentially a way to coordinate viral video campaigns across various social media platforms) for Phonebloks, his idea to create a modular smartphone 3. His concept revolved around rectangular blocks that fit together to form the smartphone. Want to upgrade your phone’s camera? Replace the old block with a newer one. Don’t care about internet access on the go? Get rid of the WiFi block and get a bigger battery. The idea is to avoid so much electronic waste by throwing away (or recycling) only the obsolete parts of the phone and not the entire device.

Although the Thunderclap campaign was a success, the project has so far struggled to get a campaign on Kickstarter, a social funding website, where they would be able to raise funds to start prototyping. In the meantime, Google has announced a project codenamed ‘Ara’, a strikingly similar concept 4. The timing seems suspicious, but Google insists this idea has been in the works for over a year 5. The project coordinators have met with Dave Hakkens, presumably with the intention of working together.

Project Ara expect to release their first device to the public in early 2015 6. Will this herald a new age of upgradeable smartphones, or will the temptation to have a thin, light device prove too much to us all?

Edited by Debbie Nicol




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