Skeptical Shopper: Are Green Phones a Groundbreaker or a Gimmick?

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Cell phone manufacturers don't have the greatest reputation for environmental awareness, but now they are jump-starting programs to improve their standing by lessening their carbon footprint. Perhaps the biggest leap is the introduction of green phones--cell phones composed of recycled materials and de­­signed for greater energy efficiency.

But what features will you miss out on if you choose such a model? Let's look at three of the newest green phones: the Samsung Blue Earth, the Motorola Renew, and the Sony Ericsson C901 GreenHeart.

The Samsung Blue Earth, the only touchscreen phone of the bunch, has solar panels designed to harness the sun's energy and power the phone's battery. Made from recycled bottles, the Blue Earth features a built-in pedometer to track how much walking you've done and calculate the volume of CO2 emissions you have avoided by not driving. Samsung hasn't disclosed any other details regarding the phone's specs, availability, or pricing. But the effectiveness of a solar-powered phone remains untested, and the Blue Earth seems unlikely to have special features beyond the environmental ones, since nothing else has been advertised.

The Sony Ericsson GreenHeart--the most feature-rich of the three new phones--has a pedometer, a 5-megapixel camera, a media player, and a NetFront browser. It ships with an electronic in-phone manual rather than a paper guide, and is made of recycled plastics. Though the GreenHeart delivers just about everything you could want in a basic phone, it has a small (2.2-inch) display and offers no touchscreen or QWERTY keyboard--so forget about sending e-mail or texting unless you're very patient. Sony hasn't announced pricing; the phone will be available in late 2009.

The Motorola W233 Renew is currently available (from T-Mobile). Reasonably priced at $30, the Renew is made from recycled bottles and comes packaged in 100 percent recycled materials. The Renew doesn't have a camera, however, and its small, 1.6-inch, 128-by-128-pixel display isn't suitable for watching video.

Overall, these three phones are pretty single-minded: If you're looking for a handset that does more than make calls and count your steps, they probably won't suit you. None of them are smartphones (meaning that they don't run on a platform like Windows Mobile or Symbian), so you won't have access to a variety of apps and there's little room for customization.

If you're seeking something more full-featured but you still want to be eco-conscious, a wiser decision may be to purchase a phone from a manufacturer with a good environmental track record. According to Greenpeace's "Guide to Greener Electronics," LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson have relatively successful recycling programs and have taken steps toward eliminating toxic chemicals in products and reducing factory CO2 emissions. You can also purchase solar-powered chargers, such as the Solio charger, which works with most cell phones and smartphones.

Perhaps the best thing that you can do as a responsible consumer is be aware of your own usage. Unplug your charger when it's not in use. Recycle your old cell phone at a certified depository when you get a new one, and then reuse or recycle any packaging your new phone comes in.

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