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Leon Kaye headshot

Greenpeace: Samsung's Exploding Phone Presents Opportunity for Leadership

By Leon Kaye

If last year’s biggest corporate scandal was Volkswagen’s emissions cheating fiasco, 2016 will be remembered for Samsung and the exploding Galaxy Note 7. And if Apple’s iPhone sales continue to shine, Tim Cook should write Samsung’s executives a long thank-you note after Christmas. How a company could be so oblivious and allow these phones to go to market without rigorous product testing will long be a subject for investigative journalists and business professors.

Samsung embarked upon an aggressive recall program that promises customers can exchange or refund their Note 7 phones. But Greenpeace insists 4.3 million of those smartphones were sold before Samsung halted their distribution, which poses a huge electronic waste (e-waste) challenge.

As Reuters reported last week, Samsung said it will remain “in full compliance with relevant local environmental regulations” as it sorts out what to do with the recalled phones, which contain valuable metals such as gold, tungsten and palladium.

But Greenpeace is calling on Samsung to be more transparent as to how it will process all of those smartphones.

The problem is that environmental regulations covering e-waste, including used and obsolete cell phones, are lacking in many countries. E-waste is an especially huge challenge in emerging economies, where citizens and the local environment are at risk due to the toxins that can be released as these devices are dissembled. As Greenpeace pointed out several years ago, developing countries are often the dumping ground for old electronic devices, which upon arrival are generally picked apart by hand.

Not that wealthier countries perform much better, as the financial incentives that most cellular service providers offer to recycle old phones are too uninspiring and puny for many consumers. Far too many phones, insist many environmental groups, end up in the trash.

Samsung shouldn't have a problem finding a buyer for the precious metals in its phones. By Greenpeace’s accounting, the 4.3 million Note 7 phones floating around encase 220 pound of gold, as much as 132 pounds of palladium and “several kilos” of tantalum. Those phones also contain “conflict minerals,” the group says, including at least 22 tons of cobalt. This metal that allows batteries to be lightweight in their design, but is connected to a massive human rights and child labor crisis in nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Then, of course, is the question of where all the glass and plastic components will eventually end up.

In Greenpeace’s view, Samsung has not done enough, nor has it disclosed sufficient information on how it plans to manage the recalled phones.

“Rather than just saying disposal will be done in compliance with local regulations, Samsung should use this opportunity to set an example and show innovation by recovering the resources and reusing them,” Jude Lee, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, told TriplePundit in an email.

“Samsung needs to find ways to reuse components, harvest and reuse precious metals, and then recycle responsibly. It needs to move towards a closed-loop production system, so mistakes of this scale are prevented. It must start designing phones that are made to last, easily repaired and updatable.”

In order to assure its stakeholders that the company is moving forward sustainably and responsibly, Greenpeace asked Samsung for a more detailed plan on how it will dispose these phones; how it will safely extract valuable materials; and disclose whether these devices will be disassembled and recycled locally or in one centralized location.

Image credit: John Biehler

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye