Phonebloks: A Revolutionary Panacea to Global E-Waste

To take a recent idiom touted by T-Mobile’s new phone upgrade scheme, “Two years is too long” aptly summarizes the techno-age’s obsession with owning only the newest and smartest electronics available on the market.

Dutch designer Dave Hakkens believes that this current consumer model is wasteful and is negatively impacting the global environment. In mid-September, Hakkens launched an Internet video campaign to gain support and global interest for his highly imaginative solution to the exacerbating global e-waste problem. His dream? Phonebloks–a smartphone with modular components that will ideally transcend smartphone upgrade schemes because it will be the only smartphone one would ever need.

Smart phones are habitually swept out of vogue or tossed out due to a single malfunctioning component. For instance, the Wi-Fi chip inside a smartphone can become unsoldered from its socket from either physical trauma or environmental exposure, depriving only its Wi-Fi capabilities. The entire unit would be swapped out for an entirely new handset or the latest version, instead of having the single malfunctioning component, the Wi-Fi chip in this case, replaced.

Trashed smartphones account for more than 65 percent of America’s electronic e-waste among televisions and computers. According to the EPA’s most recent report, in the year 2009 American smartphone users tossed out more than 141 million mobile devices; 11.7 million (a mere 8 percent) of these units were collected for recycling and reuse.

What happened to the rest of the 129 million of the units left over? They were relinquished to the electronic waste stream, not only building up in landfills around the country, but also contributing to the millions of tons of electronic waste ending up in the developing nations of Asia and Africa.

The world’s poorest peoples rely on these toxic waste piles for dangerous jobs and sources of meager income. Containing lead, mercury, cadmium, and other physiologically harmful heavy metals, this toxic waste is an accepted environment of living. And the bleak reality–the responsibility of breaking down and sorting through this toxic and chemically hazardous equipment falls upon the shoulders of these countries’ children.

Disturbing numbers and conditions such as these serve the inspiration behind Hakken’s Phonebloks concept, “I don’t like the direction electronics are heading. They get more disposable and get a shorter life with every model. This gives a lot of e-waste.”

In practice, Hakken’s handset would consist of a large touchscreen and detachable tech components with electrical processor pins that will click in place, much like Legos, to the housing chassis (back) of the phone. That way, when a single component or “Blok” malfunctions, that Blok can be easily taken out and replaced with a new Blok.

Similarly, Hakken’s concept allows for micro upgrades of the components, as well as personal customization of the smartphones to fit any user’s needs. For example, users could opt for camera Bloks bigger and better than the standard, or for Bloks with more memory, and even Bloks offering speedier data processing to appease the speed demon inside every smartphone user.

As with any revolutionary idea, however, critics have cited potential setbacks and expressed hesitance for actualizing Hakken’s Phonebloks. The problem of the design’s feasibility from an electronic engineering perspective, as well as the potential high costs of production impacting the possibility of offering such a product at a reasonable price, are only some of the roadblocks Dave Hakkens will encounter in realizing this dream. But that is exactly what the critics of Thomas Edison’s practical light bulb had to say nearly two centuries ago and what Steve Jobs went through to launch Apple.

Hope, as well as crowd support, for Phonebloks remains strong–Hakkens has mentioned that there are interested companies already in contact with him.

Even if the project fails to gain headwind, the realities of e-waste and how it negatively affects the people of developing regions still gain a voice. Perhaps the idea of an environmentally friendlier modular phone is something that big cellular companies will consider adopting in the future designs of their phones.

– Malika Gumpangkum

Sources: Phonebloks, CNN, Forbes, EPA, RT
Photo: CNN Tech