Creators of Phonebloks Hope to Reduce E-Waste With Modular Phone Design

inhand_thumbThe world’s hunger for mobile devices is contributing to a growing stream of electronic waste. However, a Dutch design group thinks they have come up with a way to reduce this e-waste: a modular mobile phone that can be customized and upgraded indefinitely with reusable, recyclable parts.

Gawin Dapper, CTO of Phonebloks and managed-services provider Cyso, said in an email that a key objective of their mobile-phone project is to help “create a better and more sustainable world.” The Phonebloks team “would like to make the parts to be reusable” by trading them through a marketplace, he said. “In case a part is broken beyond repair, recycling and using biodegradable hardware should be a realistic alternative.”

The Phonebloks website notes that  millions of mobile phones are thrown away each year for one reason: mobile phones are not designed for repairs or upgrades.

The U.S. discarded 152 million mobile devices in 2010, totaling 19,500 tons of e-waste, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC), an environmental advocacy group. The U.S recycling rate for mobile devices is only 11 percent.

Mobile devices often get chucked out when one part fails, even though everything else works fine. Credit: Phonebloks.

Mobile devices often get chucked out when one part fails, even though everything else works fine. Credit: Phonebloks.

Mobile phone e-waste could grow to staggering proportions. Research firm Gartner estimates global mobile phone sales at 1.75 billion units last year, a figure that is expected to grow to 1.9 billion by 2014.

“A Phone Worth Keeping”

Phonebloks, now in concept stage, is made up of detachable blocks with pins that plug into a rectangular base. The screen attaches to one side of the base, and the other components plug into the other side. Those components can be mixed and matched according to the preference of the user — WiFi module, Bluetooth, gyroscope, battery, audio jack, antenna, storage, and camera. Everything is locked into place with two small screws on the edge.

Courtesy of Phonebloks

Courtesy of Phonebloks

Components will be bought and sold through a planned “Blokstore.” Dave Hakkens, who led the Phonbloks design team, plans to open the store to independent developers and would operate it on a revenue-share model. His web presentation says, “You can buy a pre-assembled phone or assemble it yourself by selecting the brands you want to support.” Subscriptions will allow customers to automatically receive upgrades to parts and send back the old ones. Phonebloks is based on an open platform to encourage third-party participation.

The modularity of the phone promotes customization. “If you do everything in the cloud, why not exchange your storage blok for a bigger battery blok?”  advises a Phonebloks video. If you use your phone a lot to take pictures, “why not upgrade your camera?”

Courtesy of Phonebloks

Courtesy of Phonebloks

To promote the idea, Hakkens has organized a social campaign to launch today via Thunderclap, a “crowd-speaking platform” that lets people lend their Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr networks to mass-share a single message at the same time. He hopes to attract other companies to support thr project.

Hakkens told Dezeen magazine that the point of the social campaign is “to generate lots of buzz so companies see there’s a huge market and realize they really need to make a phone like this. Setting up this platform is too big for one company. We need partners to work together with us.”

A Great Idea That Might Not Actually Work?

While the Phonebloks idea has captured a lot of interest and support, not everyone is convinced a modular phone technology like this would work. MIT engineer Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit Industries, has said the pin connectors required for Phonebloks represent a vulnerability. Smartphones are getting cheaper and more compact all the time, but going for the modular design will probably result in a bulkier more expensive phone, he said.

Courtesy of Phonebloks

Courtesy of Phonebloks

“Making lots of little things with enclosures will always be a bit more challenging in terms of costs, timing, and production,” he said. “The trend for phone makers now is to jam everything in one almost solid seamless case and also have as much as possible on one chip.”

Precious Plastic

Phonebloks isn’t Hakkens’s first venture into the sustainability arena. He has designed his own suite of plastic recycling equipment he calls Precious Plastic. The Precious Plastic machines include a shredder, an extruder, an injection molder and a rotation molder. “I wanted to make my own tools so that I could use recycled plastic locally,” he told Dezeen magazine.


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