Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New, Green Product vs. Used, Traditional Product? You Decide.

I'm stumped, and I need your opinion. "You" being the loyal followers of my blog!

Thankfully, this isn't a picture of my phone, but some days I feel it might as well be. For the past two and a half years, I've been using a cell phone that features a large touch screen, like the one depicted here. Before I adopted the phone, it belonged to my father, who has the tendency to pass down electronics to me when he's ready for the next model. Did he realize he was doing something environmentally friendly when he gave me his old laptop in 2003, his digital camera in 2005, his handheld video camera in 2007, and his cell phone in 2009? Probably not, though I'm always grateful for the gifts. Either way, I'm glad my footprint is small when I don't have to buy new electronics.

To get back to why I feel like my phone reminds me of the one in the picture, you need to know that the touch screen on my phone is showing signs of its age. Crazy, I didn't realize two-and-a-half was so old! The phone has lost its (warning: pun!) touch when I try to send a text message. The keyboard appears on the screen, I begin typing, and some of the letters don't show up, or one letter is mistaken for the one next to it on the keyboard. This, despite the fact that my fingers have not significantly increased in size over the past few years. Once I realized that the space bar fails to insert a space one out of every three times I touch it, I knew for sure that I was nearing the point where I would have to retire my little radiation-emitting friend.

But what do I replace it with? Unlike tablet PCs, e-readers, and Apple products - which I haven't been tempted to buy -  I can't function very effectively without a cell phone (if you had to take public transit in Toronto as often as I do, you'd understand how vital it is for me to be able to update friends about how late my arrival will be). I know how to safely dispose of the old phone, I just don't know which of the following two options to go for:

A. The new, green cell phone
  • greener materials: some use plant-based plastics, others are free of flame retardants and PVC, and many newer models contain a great number of recyclable parts than before

  • reduced energy use: power-saving mode and solar panels to help with recharging, and one model even has an alarm that notifies you when the battery has fully charged, so that you can unplug it right away and avoid drawing phantom power

  • eco-friendly companies: green production practices, take-back recycling programs, and supply chains free of unfair labour or minerals tainted by conflict

B. The used, traditional cell phone
  • no new materials: avoiding the production and processing of toxic products for use in circuit boards, screens, batteries, and casings (and the packaging that new phones are sold in)

  • reduced manufacturing- and transportation-related energy use: all of the power that went into producing the phone and moving the raw materials and parts around the globe is spread out over two users and a longer lifespan

  • lower demand for new phones: if I don't buy a new phone, I'm not contributing to the never-ending demand for new products, the kind of demand that prompts companies to make more and more each year

Those are some good arguments for both sides! There are counter-arguments, too. For example, new cell phone models are not nearly green enough to be considered eco-friendly, not unless the manufacturers avoid heavy metals and petroleum-based compounds altogether. On the flip side, giving a used phone a second home doesn't do anything to encourage cell phone companies to keep developing and improving on their green models.

Your turn: what would you do in my place? What is the biggest factor for you? Does my decision even carry consequences when in China and India, over 1 billion phones are in use?

Photo of broken cell phone used under Creative Commons from Ninja M. (flickr)
Photo of rotary phone used under Creative Commons from Stephen Mitchell (Fotopedia).


  1. Tough call!

    Personally, I'd go for the new, green cell phone, assuming price isn't a major factor... but there really is an argument to be made for either side. However, I feel that buying a used piece of technology has a somewhat negative side-effect... normally you're buying a used cell phone from somebody so they can go buy a new one themselves... and chances are good that they're NOT going to get a green cell phone.

    Think about this as if it were a car... would you take somebody else's gas-guzzling monstrosity so they can buy a new car?

    I think it's a good first sign that you're thinking about it, though! Keep us posted on what you decide!

  2. Marc - I hadn't thought of that! This only makes the decision harder. :) I have to say, though, that I'd be pretty picky about which used phone I'd buy. You mention the gas-guzzling car... I wouldn't buy a power-inefficient phone. My phone, which I don't buy a data plan for and make only short calls on, lasts 5 to 7 days before I have to recharge it. I wouldn't want to replace it with something that needs recharging at the end of every day (I'm looking at you, smartphones).

  3. It's a tough call. To try and draw an analogy between your situation and one of my own, I've been using the laptop I'm typing this on for six years, and for a long time I commended myself for getting along with it and saving the resources that would be required to make a new computer.

    Then I read that the increase of energy efficiency in electronic devices occurs at the same rate as Moore's Law--that is, it doubles every eighteen months. So that laptop that I would buy today (that, indeed, I've decided to buy) will be exponentially more energy-efficient. After six years of using the current computer, I feel the trade-off is well worth it, for myself and for the environment.

  4. Scott - Thanks for sharing that statistic! I didn't realize the efficiency improvements were occurring so quickly. Well, that's a HUGE argument towards buying a new model. Then again, I wonder if it's somewhat less relevant for phones, especially since I only use my phone for text messages and the occasional phone call. I probably should replace my laptop with more urgency!

  5. I think it applies to all electronic devices, though I'm not completely certain.

  6. I would try to determine which product will last longest. If a new, green phone uses less energy than a used one, but is dispensable after only a year, I don't particularly consider it to be a green product. Even if you "recycle" a phone properly, there is inevitably waste and environmental impact. I'd had the same phone for 4 years now, which seems like forever for a cell phone, but in the broad scope of things, 4 years is a very short time length. It is a really out of date phone- I think an early 2000's model. I drop it all of the time and it has gotten wet, but it seems indestructible (knock on wood). I'd rather have this old phone that lasts years rather than a new "green" phone that may not last long. I suggest comparing phone reviews online.

  7. Emily - Good point. It seems that with other products (cars, furniture, cookware, etc.), the lifespan is shorter than it used to be. I wonder if it will be hard to look up reviews about this particular issue, since the average cell phone user switches to a new phone long before the gadget dies... so how would they know? I'll see what I can find out.

  8. Very difficult decision. I have been there myself. As much as I want to tell you to buy the greenest technology out there, it would be hypocritical to do so. I use my phone for work and personal use and have become very dependent on my not so green cell.

    My advice would be to choose the phone that best meets your needs and focus on a green phone charger (solar). I've also read that there are cell phones that have a solar power option-not sure what brands. Curios to know what you find.

  9. Lori - Thank you for your honesty. It's hard for me to admit when I'm using non-green products!

    Solar phone chargers intrigue me. On the one hand, heavy metals are a necessary to make solar technology; on the other hand, once constructed, solar panels keep providing us with clean energy for decades or longer before wearing out.

  10. I would personally go with the new, green cell phone, because you're voting with your money for a green product, which will encourage more green products to be made. Not to mention getting the newest technology! While you're shopping for green products, you can check in this section -

  11. Yeah, voting with my money is a big reason to go with a new phone. I'm still undecided but hope to make a decision in January!