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Walmart Sponsored Series

Setting The Standard

Smartphones Are Everywhere ... But Where Are the Standards?


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The electronics industry has become the de facto face of innovation in the post- WWII era.

When it comes to sustainability in the electronics industry, much attention is being paid to e-waste and energy efficiency. However, there is much more to making a sustainable smart product in the 21st century. That's why UL – Underwriters Laboratories – through UL Environment developed the UL 110 standard for mobile phones, tablets and other "smart" products.

The UL ISR 110 standard is points-based and devices that receive the certification must:

  • contain environmentally preferable materials;

  • be manufactured using environmentally and socially responsible practices;

  • be recyclable at end-of-life;

  • make use of recycled and recyclable packaging;

  • have minimal environmental impact;

  • have minimal human health risks;

  • perform efficiently; and

  • demonstrate innovation in sustainable manufacturing.

Mobile devices create a unique challenge from a sustainability certification perspective. They are complex pieces of equipment, contain metals that may have come from conflict regions and chemicals that may be harmful to human health; they are also difficult to recycle given the high number of components they include, and at the end of the day, each one only gets used for an average of 18 months.

Yet, creating a greener product can provide a competitive advantage, as Scot Case, UL Environment director of markets development, explained in a 3p interview. “There are retailers that know their customers want to buy greener products, but they're not positioned to define exactly what a greener product is," Case said. "They need an independent, third-party to help define, develop and implement them.”

Collaboration to define, develop, implement and verify eco labels, certifications and sustainability standards for electronics products across the value chain is key to leveling the commercial playing field.

“A lot of what we do,” UL Environment sustainability scientist Dr. Bill Hoffman said, “revolves around development of multi-attribute standards and technical panels – stakeholder groups representing a variety of different organizations, bringing that collective expertise to bear. There's much more than just our organization involved in order to get the full spectrum of viewpoints and expertise.”

Sprint, for example, worked with UL Environment to define just what a “greener” mobile phone should be. “They turned to us to help define what a sustainable mobile phone is,” Case said. Today, every consumer electronics (CE) device that connects to Sprint's networks has to be UL 110 certified.

Sustainable electronics: Moving beyond e-waste recycling and energy efficiency

Initially focusing on e-waste and the energy efficiency of CE products opened the gateway, so to speak, to a wider and deeper assessment of environmental sustainability in the electronics industry, Case pointed out. This now encompasses the environmental impacts of electronics materials sourcing, manufacturing processes, and impacts throughout product and process life cycles, including waste disposal, recycling and reuse.

Carrying sustainability concepts even further, sustainability certifications and standards now seek to assess the overall sustainability of the entire range of electronics companies' operations and supply chains, as well as the energy used to power them. Consumer electronics industry participants, and society as a whole, even the environment and all living things, stand to benefit as a result.

Evolving standards

The field of sustainable electronics certification and standards-setting is a dynamic and evolving one, Hoffman added. The 110 standard covers mobile phones. We have also developed related standards for Wi-Fi hotspots (UL 2853) and for slate-like tablet devices (UL 2841). UL also certifies to the IEEE 1680 series of standards, which include standards for personal computers, and ‘smart’ TVs, he told 3p.

The rapid pace of innovation, change and obsolescence – planned or unplanned – is another important issue to address when developing and verifying sustainable electronics standards.

“How fast the industry moves is an issue that has to be considered,” Case pointed out. “That's led to a focus on end-of-life and materials sourcing, usage, recycling and reuse, as well as extending the useful life of products through repair and maintenance.

“Certainly all our standards include an end-of-life component. We're having that discussion right now regarding mobile phone standards, which includes how easy they are to repair.

"'Can you extend the lifetime of it?' Issues revolving around collection and reuse – there is a whole series of different issues really that ultimately aim to to maximize use of products and minimize their impacts. Obviously, if you can reuse materials, you save all the materials and energy that would go into building new ones.”

These standards don't just stop at the lifecycle. They also consider the environmental claims made by manufacturers. It's not enough just to have standards and certifications, Case highlighted. “We're validating the accuracy of environmental claims. When a manufacturer states that their product is made of 100 percent recyclable plastic,” for example, “UL sends a team out to validate those claims.”

This past May, UL Environment issued its first closed-loop Environmental Claim Validation to Dell. As a result, “Dell's OptiPlex 3030 All-in-One computers are verified to contain a minimum of 10 percent post-consumer closed loop recycled content,” according to a press release.

This specific claim validation, UL Environment explains, “goes beyond a recycled content claim because it involves a closed loop, meaning that plastic from old electronics is being reused to create parts for new computers.”

Such environmental and human health and safety standards provide a vital service to consumers and the broader public, making the invisible visible, Case added:

“There are hidden health, environmental and social impacts associated with cell phones, and these have been addressed in the [UL110] standard. If you look at it, it's very appealing to 'eco geeks,' but it's also very simple for someone like my mom to understand and use.

For more for more on sustainable electronics, explore UL Environment's Sustainable Product Database.

Image courtesy of UL Environment

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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