The Green Revolution has been waiting patiently for the cellphone industry to catch up; with the W233 Renew, Motorola attempts to oblige with a carbon-neutral, mostly recyclable entry-level GSM offering.
The messages beam loud and clear from the face of the cardboard-brown shipping carton; this is an "environmentally responsible" phone, a carbon-neutral phone. It's hard to imagine in 2009 that this 100% recyclable corrugated box represents an industry first, but it's smaller than average, not at all glossy and apparently printed with vegetable-based ink. The phone's "carbon-neutral" designation comes from reductions and offsets acquired through a partnership with Carbonfund.org. The unit ships with a postage-paid bag that routes your old cellphone and unwanted accessories to a recycling center.
But the real attention-grabber came from early reports stating the phone was "made of recycled water bottles." Motorola is more precise in their choice of words, "Housing made of plastics that contain recycled water bottles," for example. A quick trip to the bottled water aisle at the local grocery store reveals that water bottles are typically made of a polymer called polyethylene terephthalate, which is normally abbreviated "PETE" or sometimes "PET." Anyone living in an area where household recycling must be sorted will recognize the Plastic Identification Code for PETE as the number "1" inside the familiar, arrow-triangle emblem. PETE shows up in the form of ketchup bottles and soft drink containers, too.
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So, if we disassemble the Motorola Renew, will we find this telltale PETE symbol? Nope. The front and rear enclosures of the Renew, along with the battery cover, are made of polycarbonate, which is the plastic of choice for most mobile phone housings. This is the same strong, shatter-resistant stuff found in everything from eyeglass lenses to bulletproof windows. Like other plastics, polycarbonate is often marked with an identifying symbol, and for polycarbonate the symbol is ">PC<"; polycarbonate shares the plastic identification code (recycling number) "7" with several other durable plastics. The ">PC<" mark is the only plastic identification found inside the Renew.
Does that mean some of Motorola's statements are dishonest? Not really. Reusable water bottles, the durable kind intended for lunchboxes and backpacks, are often made of polycarbonate and can be recycled. While this type of water bottle is less prevalent, it certainly exists. There's a possibility, of course, that many other cellphone housings are made partly from recycled polycarbonate. Apparently Motorola has taken the admirable step of assuring some recycled content.
What about the underlying technology? Was a fresh design required to meet the manufacturer's claim "Product recyclability is 65 percent or greater"? It doesn't look that way. In a different twist of the familiar "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" mantra, Motorola appears to have reused last year's W230 model quite thoroughly in the development of the Renew. The physical dimensions and product specifications of the two models are nearly identical, except that the Renew lacks the FM radio capability of the W230. User interfaces are similar, if not identical. Like the W230, the Renew is based on TI's LoCosto platform, a TWL2310 GSM digital baseband/RF IC and TWL3031 power management/peripheral support IC. The front-end module is the same dual-band SKY77517 from Skyworks. Both phones feature a 128 x 128 CSTN (color super-twist nematic) display. The printed circuit boards in the two models appear to have the same size, shape and composition. It's not difficult to speculate that the W230 might also be about 65 percent recyclable. They are essentially the same phone with minor cosmetic differences but very different marketing strategies.
None of this is to say that the Renew should be viewed as an indictment of hype over innovation. In many ways, it's most appropriate that these strides were taken with a simple dual-band phone, where the differentiation is not confounded by a huge list of features. Motorola has demonstrated that minor steps, such as reduced and simplified packaging, can yield real benefits. By providing a postage-paid trip to a cellphone recycling center, the Renew raises the bar on environmental stewardship in a tangible and practical way. Above all, Motorola has shown that converting an existing design to a more ecologically friendly product does not require major innovation; it's something that can be done for just about any phone, and could've been done long ago.
Bob Widenhofer is a product analyst at Portelligent, a TechInsights company that produces teardown reports and related industry research on wireless, mobile and personal electronics.