The Problem With Little

The Problem With Little

By Carol Baroudi
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It's the little things making materials reclamation difficult, says @Carol_Baroudi of @ArrowGlobal Value Recovery

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Thursday, September 10, 2015 - 8:50am

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We love the convenience, the portability, the mobility of little. No one seriously considered hauling a desktop computer to work, on the plane or to the beach. Those were simpler times. Simpler end-of-life handling, too.

Thinner, sleeker, and lighter are hallmarks of the marketing strategy that inoculates consumers with the obsolescence bug long before functionality actually falters. And, ironically, the costs are hidden at both ends of the lifecycle because everyone knows that the dollars are really in the service plan. Who do you know who paid $1,100 for their iPhone 6? And, apart from corporations that are diligent about their data, who among us is actually paying for the appropriate end-of-life processing of our cast-off phones?

The problem with little is that the very things that make devices little make them much more challenging in terms of materials reclamation. For one thing, it’s just harder to get at teeny tiny bits of stuff. For another, dozens of different materials are squeezed into small devices, making the separation of materials for reuse extremely challenging.

When it comes to the end-of-life of mobile devices, consumer and corporate behaviors vary dramatically. While most corporations are cognizant of the risks to their data, to the environment, and to their brand’s reputation if electronics are mishandled, most consumers are quick to upgrade their phones and ignore the phone they no longer use. Perhaps they drop it in a kiosk, or send it in to be recycled with their carrier. But it’s the rare individual who actually knows what happens to a mobile phone once it’s dropped off.

So what is the solution, both to conserving resources and preventing e-waste? If we frame the problem as a matter of premature abandonment of serviceable equipment, then let’s take the lifecycle out of the hands of the carriers and put it into the hands of the consumer. That’s the idea behind creating modular phones – phones that consumers can easily repair and upgrade themselves with the intention of using them longer, rather than trading them in every year.

It’s an idea that’s gaining traction. Check out Puzzle Phone and Google’s Project Ara.

If you’re interested in the materials that go into electronics and what it takes to make them easier to repair and, when necessary, recycle, I hope you’ll join my colleague Scott Venhaus and me at the Emerging Green Conference in Portland, Oregon, September 22-24. Drop me a line at and we can grab a cup of coffee.

Carol Baroudi works for Arrow’s Value Recovery business, promoting sustainability awareness and action. She is the lead author of Green IT For Dummies. Her particular focus is on electronics at the IT asset dispositionstage, e-waste, and everything connected. Follow her on Twitter @carol_baroudi and connect with her on LinkedIn at Follow the Emerging Green Conference on twitter: @Emerging_Green .