BRUSSELS, Belgium – Is there a difference between the U.S. and Europe on green and sustainability issues? It appears there is to judge from an interaction at the IMEC Technology Forum here yesterday.
James Thompson, executive vice president of engineering at Qualcomm Technologies Inc., provided a 30 minute presentation, on mobile computing in which he concluded that Qualcomm has a bright future in the mobile because of the apparently endless appetite for new features in ever-more sophisticated mobile phones and tablets. Qualcomm plans to answer that demand through fabless manufacturing coupled with a deeper engagement with the semiconductor industry, Thompson said.
During his talk he observed that the general business model in mobile telephony is that consumers get a new phone plus a two year contract and every two years and are eager to upgrade because each phone has brought new and exciting features.
It was not so much the content of Thompson's talk that displayed the difference between the U.S. and Europe as what happened after.
During the question and answer session at the end of his talk an audience member asked what Qualcomm was doing about recycling. Thompson hesitated before saying: "Recycling is not something I normally think about."
Thompson then responded that Qualcomm is involved in wireless charging, which is green because it can save consumers from having multiple "wall wart" transformers plugged in all the time. I think this is a specious argument as I have written elsewhere (see London Calling: Forget wireless charging) but in any case does not address the topic of recycling.
So it was left to the questioner to be more specific about what he meant. What is Qualcomm doing to design phones and chips so that component elements and materials are more easily recyclable, and thus mitigate the waste of throwing away a phone every two years? The mobile phone industry and its users are now responsible for hundreds of millions of phones, loaded with expensive-to-produce silicon, plastics and precious metals headed toward landfill, incineration, or offshore unregulated deconstruction.
Answer there was none. But it is perhaps something that should be starting to climb up Thompson's and Qualcomm's agenda?
I don't think healthy smartphones get thrown away like they used to. My iPhone 1 still does iPod duty in my garage. With smartphones doubling as cameras, nav systems, entertainment sources, etc. they have a lot more intrinsic utility, even after the cellular service is turned off.
Agreed. And some people on two-year contracts don't upgrade.
But the issue of what can be done about recycling of parts and materials within relatively short-life consumer electronics remains.
Should companies design a more expensive product that can cost the planet less in terms of carbon footprint? Or will that just mean they lose out to the competitor who optimizes for consumer price/performance?
And if the later is true should governments regulate to impose carbon footprint design considerations on all manufacturers?
Peter, I am not sure that I agree that this interaction is really a proper basis to extrapolate a conclusion regarding American and European goals and views of e-waste and sustainability. Indeed, I did a bit of informal research (thank you, Google), and Qualcomm's 2011 Social Responsibility report was one of the first hits detailing, among other things, 486,000 lbs of e-waste recycling.
Well the interaction was a hook to hang a discussion upon.
I am not sure whether engaging in 486,000lbs of e-waste recycling in a year is a good or bad figure.
The same report you cite reveals that Qualcomm had 21,200 employees in 2011, which equates to 22.9 lbs of e-waste recycling per capita for 2011.
This doesn't seem a lot to me but others may be able to shed light on this.
Peter, it seems to me that the question was posed to a person at Qualcomm who was not the best-qualified to answer it. As @benhoopes comments above, Q does indeed pay proper attention to recycling eWaste. Granted one expects every one to be aware of their social and environmental responsibility including the said Q exec above, I wouldn't hold that against him!
I'm not holding anything against James Thompson.
The fact is that making precious metals more easily recoverable would be very difficult in modern IC and, as far as I know is not done. Similarly making the same ICs reusable in multiple generations of equipment is not done. After all, who would want a computer loaded with memory ICs considerably older than the machine itself.
But these things are starting to be matters of concern.
Understood Peter! I do give credit to the European initiatives where it is due, as in WEEE and RoHS. I think these efforts do not go far enough regarding rare-earth & precious metals recovery from eWaste.
I would not "give credit" to the Europeans for RoHS. RoHS in fact is responsible for premature electronic failures due to brittle solders which cause chips to fall off circuit boards and for tin whiskers which cause short circuits between adjacent conductors. This not only affects cellphones but cameras, GPS units, audio and video gear, computers, tablets, and home theaters.
The misguided Europeans and their RoHS have done more to increase electronic waste than any 2-year American cellphone contract.
I think the author is referring to precious metals in other parts of the phone, not in the ICs. Batteries contain cobalt and LCD panels contain indium -- not exactly precious metals, but rare earth metals.
If the discussion that you wanted to set up was a discussion of recycling of e-waste across the industry, it should have been framed as such rather than broadly calling out Americans or Qualcomm based on but one interaction.
So, let's assume that what Frank says makes sense, since it seems to. The precious metals that one would have to worry about, in recycling, are in the phones but not in the chips themselves?
So, what major role would Qualcomm have to play in this recycling regard? Is Qualcomm still making phones, and somehow I missed that?
As to whether Europeans or Americans worry more about recycling, I'm not sure what the actual answer is. I know that recycling technology in the US seems to be increasing year after year. To where now, just judging from our own trash at home, we put a whole lot more volume of trash in the recycling bin than in the other one. Way, way more. Because they keep relaxing what items can be recycled. So I would dispute any notion that it doesn't matter in the US, even if we don't talk about it as much.
I''ll take the controversial view that smartphones actually reduce ewaste by replacing multiple consumer devices (cameras, video cameras, nav systems, mp3 players, e-books), all of which had similarly limited lifetimes. I merely have to look into my junkroom to be reminded of the number of obsolete consumer goodies I still cling to and the dozens more that entered the waste stream (after recycling the batteries). I believe we're better off to pre-cycle (buy fewer, more capable things) than focusing on recycling. I think we'll hold on to phones longer as the carrier subsidies fade.
It's an argument.
Are the short life times driven by subsidy or by the rapid addition of "features" enabled by good ol' Moore's Law?
I notice that U.K. mobile hone service provider O2 are advertizing a two-year contract where you can upgrade your phone whenever within the same contract so that you can always have the "latest" phone.
That could accelerate obsolesence?
The real measure might be to compare phone lifespans between carriers/plans with subsidies vs. carriers/plans without subsidies. Of course you might have to control for disposable income of purchaser as well.
Let Europeans enjoy the fruits of their government solving their evryday problems. There is a side effects of letting governments babyseat their subjects.
Bulk of recicling waste is not smatphones. I buy a smartphone once in 1-3 years, but we recicle packaging, bottles ... ~20 pounds a week.
Besides, there is battery recicling that adresses really toxic part of the phone.
My suggestion is to youse your own head before running to government and asking them to think instead of you.