Material complexity hurts reusability, repairability and recyclability

Today’s smartphones are incredibly complex and a great deal of this complexity is unnecessary. “It is very realistic to think that there are 1,000 substances involved in making a phone,” Thea Kleinmagd, a circular material chains innovator at Fairphone, tells me. “For producing one phone, you move 75 kg of materials. This includes the fuel used, and the cleaning substances that are needed throughout the production. If you think that we produce 1.4 billion phones every year and multiply that by 75 kg, it is a huge amount of material that we move.

“Smartphones often contain only tiny amounts of a material,” Thea explains. “Therefore, it is very difficult to separate these materials. What happens in the recycling process currently is that the battery is removed and the phone is thrown into a shredder, and then afterwards you have several separation technologies that will sort the shredded parts. You have ferrous materials that will stick to a magnet, and if you have a material, like gold, that is still attached to it, then this will probably not be recycled, because this part will end up in the ferrous material processing line. Like this, you lose a lot of materials.

“The system is not really made for all the materials that we have in products nowadays. There are now so many more materials being used than when our recycling system was planned. The processes are targeted to recover certain materials, which means that others materials are lost. In general, there are a handful of materials that pay for their processing. Other materials which are rather scarce but don’t have a high price on the market, they are not really worth recovering.

“Rare earths are not really recovered in our current system. They sound rare from the name but they actually are not. They are very abundant in the Earth’s crust but it is hard to find the right concentrations of them. And they are also associated with radioactive material that you will also have to extract. The pollution related to these materials is very high, so we need to be more frugal and use our products longer so that we need less.”

One way of making smartphones last longer is to make them modular. “The Fairphone 4 can be opened without tools, and you can remove and exchange eight different parts easily at home. This means that you will not be without a phone since you don’t need to leave it at the shop. Also software plays a really important role. For the Fairphone 4, software support is guaranteed until the end of 2026. We also intend to extend it further, until the end of 2028. Our Fairphone 2, which was launched in 2015, just received an Android update after almost seven years. This is really a first in the industry.”

In a better world, if we’re buying a phone in 2030, can we expect that phone to last 10 years? “I would really hope so,” Thea replies. “Currently, the average is somewhere between two and three years. Fairphone have the goal for at least five years, maybe even seven years right now. But some components are just not made to last longer. This is why we have this repairability approach. For example, if you have a USB connector, which is always needed for charging, this is made to break at a certain moment. If you can easily replace it with a spare part then you can use your phone for longer.”

Thea Kleinmagd: Designing a smartphone that lasts


Podcast: World Wide Waste
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