Friday, September 26, 2008

Would You Eat This Cell Phone?

We know that electronic equipment has recently been fingered as a major source of toxic waste. So much so that communities have started recycling programs to collect old TVs, computers, VCRs and smaller electronic devices. You can send in your old cell phones to online recyclers who will even pay you for recent models. But the real solution may be to clean up the problem upstream.

We love our electronics. Fat chance that we'll ever go back to a pre-technology world. Who really wants to trade their PC and Blackberry for a horse and plow? You can get tired just thinking about it. But we really do need to face the fact that those billions of plastic cases and circuit boards are going to poison us right off the planet if we just keep tossing them when a newer better model comes out.

Recycling is certainly a good way to start addressing the problem. Making things that aren't so toxic in the first place is even better. A few years ago, Motorola came up with polyvinylalcohol polymer that can be used as a plastic cell phone case. Researchers at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England then devised a front cover embedded with a sunflower seed. No, you don't get a vine growing into your ear even if you talk all day. But when that cover is planted in the garden, the seed extracts fertilizer from the plastic and... upsy-daisy. Well, upsy-sunflower.

Now Sony Ericsson is out to see what it can do to save the planet. Their concept is called GreenHeart. They start with disposable bio-plastic housings but go on to use recycled plastic keypads, electronic manuals, environmentally conscious packaging, and a charger with a very low standby power.

That's another bugaboo with electronic equipment. It looks off, but it's really on. The standby power ranges from a few watts to dozens of watts, each device sipping off the power grid like a tiny vampire. Add them all up and you need to build more generating stations just to power stuff that isn't being used. Even cell phone chargers draw some power while you're off using the phone. That is, if you don't unplug them when you're done charging. And who remembers to do that?

Perhaps one answer to our world's growing need for both food and technology is to make equipment not just degradable, but actually digestible. You've seen the ad on TV where people eat five dollars. Well, why not five cell phones? If electronic chips went well with salsa, you'd have a hard time not devouring the TV before the game was over. On second thought, perhaps we better just stick with biodegradable materials in the future and recycling for now. I really don't want a monitor that might be mistaken for a pizza.

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