We’ve written quite a bit about e-waste here over the years. It is a growing problem that is oddly emblematic of our cyber-frenetic lives. Gadgets come and go with dizzying speed, the fruits of innovation that have ushered in our hyper-connected, information-rich lifestyle, have also grown into mountains of modern jetsam. At last count, there is somewhere between twenty and fifty million tons of the stuff being discarded each year. And like a lot of today’s trash, it is sometimes hard-pressed to find a final resting place, sometimes ending up in places like Africa or China where, desperate to extract bits of value, indigent people do themselves unintentional harm by exposing themselves to lead and other hazardous materials.
The electronics industry is worried about this, too. Legislation like the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, which was introduced last year, but failed to pass, would have made it illegal to ship e-waste overseas and with takeback rules also in the offing, could well have caused some manufacturers to drown in their own, well, for lack of a better word…excrement. The bill is expected to be recycled next year.
But what about reducing the amount of e-waste to begin with?
A huge portion of this waste mountain consists of cell phones. Back when I was growing up, phones were quite a bit larger than they are now, but people rarely threw them out and hardly ever replaced them. They were extremely reliable and they did the one thing that they were supposed to do, make phone calls, very well and didn’t change much over the years. So it was not unusual for people to hang onto the same phone for twenty years or more. Not a lot of e-waste there.
So the idea behind Phonebloks, a phone that is made up of detachable blocks, each of which contains an upgradeable functional module, is that people would once again hang onto their phones, at least the main parts, for a long time. When you wanted a new feature, you could simply upgrade the appropriate module, keeping the rest of the phone intact. The blokstore is envisioned as a kind of hardware equivalent to an app store. The development will take place on an open platform so that multiple manufacturers can support it. It is only in the conceptual state right now, but the company is in the process of generating support. In order to do so, they need a lot of people to step up and say that they would be interested in such a phone. They are accumulating names so that on October 29th they can send out a global blast to show the world, through crowdspeaking, what kind of interest there is, “in a phone worth keeping.”
Phonebloks is the brainchild of Dave Hakkens, a designer from the Netherlands. In his vision, this device could be almost infinitely customizable, almost like a smartphone is today with the addition of software apps.
Of course, the blocks that get upgraded will also create e-waste, but a smaller amount, accumulating over a longer period of time.
It kind of reminds me of my trusty old axe that I bought many years ago. It’s had two new heads and five new handles since then, but to me it’s still the same trusty old axe.
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RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.
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