How Green is Your Cell Phone?

Some of the biggest news coming out of this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is that cell phones are finally going green. Samsung, LG, and Motorola all showed phones that would make even Al Gore crack a smile.

The biggest splash was made by Samsung's Blue Earth phone, despite the awful marketing slogan ("Blue is the new green"). It's rounder and a bit chunkier than your average handset, thanks to the mini solar panels striping the phone's back panel.

Some 10 to 14 hours of direct sunlight will provide enough juice for about 4 hours of use, per the demo dude (aka, El Hombre de Demonstracion). I maintain a healthy skepticism about all claims of battery life, let alone one that relies on a nuclear furnace 93 million miles away, so I'd be pleasantly surprised if that proved true. Still.... The case is made from 100 percent recycled plastic water bottles and castor beans, whatever they are; the packaging is 100 percent recyclable and uses soy-based inks; no nasty ozone-eating chemicals are used in its production; and Samsung has a take-back program for recycling your old phones. All good stuff.

Now for the bad news: Behind the big announcement there were pitifully few specifics. Though the Samsung phone has a catchy name, that's about all it has. It's slated to be available sometime in the second half of the year (half a lifetime for a cell phone), but Samsung did not discuss potential carriers, what regions it would be available in, or pricing. And forget about letting journalists put their grimy fingers on them; the Blue Earth was safely ensconced inside a glass case.

Samsung also offers a conventional AC charger that draws minimal power, solving the need to talk and tan at the same time.

Still, Samsung's phone seems less vaporous than LG's, which had a lookalike solar powered phone (also behind glass) but didn't have an official name yet. Otherwise the LG model looked much the same as the Samsung, using recycled plastic bottles for the housing, vegetable inks and recycled/recyclable paper for the packaging, and with a take back program for your old units.

Motorola got some skin in the green game with its Renew W233 handset, which it officially announced last month. Though not solar powered, it is made from recycled plastic, the packaging is eco friendly, and the company has purchased enough offsets to make the manufacturing process carbon neutral. It's expected to be available some time next month.

There is at least one other player in the green phone space, though it wasn't making flashy announcements. Instead of going for big ink (soy or otherwise) by promoting one "green" phone, Nokia is pushing to make its entire product line more eco friendly, says Johanna Jokinen, Nokia's senior manager for environmental affairs. Toward that end it ships power-saving chargers with more than 80 percent of all its phones; uses 100 percent recycled materials; complies with European restrictions on the use of flame retardants and other toxic chemicals; and offers drop off points for old Nokia phones in more than 85 countries, as well as mail in options.

Merely by reducing the amount of packaging it ships with each phone, Nokia has taken more than 12,000 trucks off the road since 2006, saving some 474 million Euros for the company, says Jokinen.

Nokia phones also come with a cool widget called GreenExplorer that lets owners of Nokia N60 series phones calculate their carbon usage and make up for it by donating money to JPMorganClimateCare.com. For example, my Barcelona junket burned up used up about 12,000 miles of jet fuel; it will cost me roughly $22 to make amends.

Samsung, LG, and Motorola are all off to a good start, and I commend the efforts. But I think Nokia has the right idea. It's going to take more than a few reincarnated water bottles and soy ink to make a real difference in the global climate crisis. In a more rational world, green phones wouldn't be a separate category - they would be business as usual. That's what I'd love to see at next year's Mobile World Congress.

When he finally recovers from his Barcelona boondoggle, Dan Tynan will continue to tend his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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