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Published on December 18th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Eco Friendly Cell Phones

Think tech hasn’t yet caught up with a green vision that skims the horizons of the future?  Think again—green tech is here. 

Let’s explore the greening of the cell phone, and review the environmental and health-based impacts of this most relied-upon tech tool.

Green Tech on the Horizon

Cell phone technology has been in use for about a decade, and while it has advanced by leaps and bounds, widely available green tech is still in the proverbial womb.  Stateside, manufacturers are obsessed with adding features for increasedKeeping Nature in Focus functionality, like the iPhone’s touch screen dial and visual voicemail capability.  Chinese suppliers are setting their sights on a cleaner, greener tech—Hi-Tech Wealth Co., a Chinese telecommunications producer and distributor has introduced the first light-powered cell phone, the HTW S116 Solar Mobile Phone.

The S116 sports a clamshell design whose topside is splayed with solar cells.  The cells recharge a Li-Ion battery that boasts a lifespan 2.5 times longer than its traditional counterparts.  Sources report that this mean, green mobile phone delivers 40 minutes of chat time for every 1 hour spent in the sun.  And though it’s formally referred to as a "solar mobile phone," this model squeezes energy juice from other light sources like candles and desk lamps.

This green cell phone also packs standard features like a 1.3 mega pixel camera, MP3 player and capability for supporting T-Flash cards.  The price is on the high end at 510 U.S.  dollars, but the environmental implications are priceless—China is currently home to over 400 million cell phones, and this first green mobile model marks a compelling step in the right direction for reducing (or eliminating!) the energy consumed by electrical recharging.  The model is currently available only in China, but manufacturers plan to release 6 solar-powered models this year and 30 more in 2008, so it remains to be seen how quickly green cell phones catch global fever.

A green mobile feature in the U.S. consumers’ future is a cell phone with an integrated solar panel battery charger.  Motorola has recently patented a model with a screen that recharges when exposed to direct sunlight.  Not much has been released about this model, though it’s conjectured that the solar feature would only provide a back-up power source for the cell when an electrical outlet is not at hand.

Currently available is the Solio Universal Solar Charger Kit, which retails at $79.  This kit is a compact back-up charger with a Li-Ion battery, offering 8 hours of charge time.  The kit fans out 3 solar panels into the shape of a small propeller, with the battery centered in the middle.  You can plug an iPod or cell phone directly into the battery, and if it dies, the solar panels will draw in energy to keep you rockin’ out.

Eco-Friendly Cell Phones

While cell phones have become a trend-setting fixture in many parts of the world, our recent reliance on this technology does not bode well for one corner of the world in particular.  Africa contains a cradle of civilization, sprawling savannah lands, deep jungles, and . . . coltan.  Coltan (short for Columbite-Tantalite) is a metallic ore containing niobium and tantalum, substances located mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  With processing, this ore is transformed into a heat-resistant powder capable of storing electrical charge.Coltan is a coating component of tantalum electrolytic capacitors, which make their way into our cell phones, pagers and PCs.  These capacitors store the minute amount of electricity required for cell phone circuit board operation.  Tantalum is so coveted for electronic use because it is considerably smaller, lighter, and longer-lasting than its aluminum counterpart.  The U.S., Belgium, and Japan hold somewhat of a monopoly on the coltan industry, sparking fierce competition (in the form of civil wars) between legitimate mining teams and rebel armies that smuggle out the ore for resale to the highest bidder.Also devastating, coltan is mined in areas that contain many of Africa’s national parks.  Large-scale deforestation hasTech and Nature cleared the way for mining in these areas, an act that robs resident gorillas of their natural habitat and food sources.  Local human populations are also displaced by the mining, exposing the gorillas as a prime target for poachers who create a niche selling this "bush meat" to miners and rebel armies.  Environmental action programs estimate that some gorilla populations in affected areas have decreased by 90% over the past 5 years.

Certainly we don’t want our dollars to support civil wars or gorilla-endangerment efforts, but how can we make sure that our cell phone purchases are truly worthy of the label "eco-friendly?"  The world’s largest tantalum capacitor manufacturer is American-based Kemet, a company requiring suppliers to provide certification that their coltan is from regions other than the Dem.  Republic of Congo and its neighbors.  This certification could place "gorilla safe" cell phones on the market.

But what can be done in the meantime?  A company called Eco-Cell has partnered with zoos in most states to create cell phone recycling programs, designed to reduce the need for coltan mining and to keep hazardous waste out of the environment.  It works like this—you send your old phone to an Eco-Cell recycling center and specify that proceeds go to gorilla conservancy efforts.  The phone is refurbished and donated to low income families or a charitable organization, and Eco-Cell donates a portion back to the Dian Fossey Gorilla fund.  Search for an Eco-Cell recycling center near you.

Health Hazards—A Buzz from the Bees

Aside from raising environmental concerns about species endangerment, cell phones are also receiving credit for worries about our food supply and general health.  Though our wireless tech may not be the only factor to blame, British studies now directly link the presence of cell phones with the recent shrinkage of global honeybee populations.  The phenomenon is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), by which worker bees desert the hive, leaving only the queen and eggs.  Though a few main staple crops like wheat and corn are wind-pollinated, the overwhelming majority of crops rely on honeybees to work their pollination magic.  This implies that our global food supply could potentially be threatened to an even greater extent than it already is in some areas.  While some scientists remain skeptical and offer up other theories about the population decline, the fact remains that our communication technologies affect the world’s bees in substantial ways—German studies echo this in linking altered bee behavior with the presence of power lines.

If pollen producers from the natural realm are affected by our tech innovations, we should take a cue and keep on top of new research about potential health hazards that affect our bodies and minds.  There has been much ado about RFs (radio frequencies) from the electromagnetic energy produced by cell phones.  Studies come out each day that support or deny the possible role of cell phone use with respect to altered brain activity, cancer, and reproductive disorders.  Many of these studies are alarmingly inconclusive or unsubstantiated, as cell phone technology is so relatively new and studies on long-term effects cannot yet be conducted.

What we do know is that British studies from 2005 positively confirm a causal link between the storage of cell phones on a belt or hip pocket and a negative affect on the quality and motility of sperm in males.  Studies from 2006 indicate that the radiation from mobile phone use in general can put males at risk for infertility.  The determining factor is the amount of exposure based on how long and how often the phone is used, the proximity to a base station, and the age of the phone (older phones increase concentration of exposure).

As we’ve seen, the tech industry is busy brainstorming the latest green gadgets, and conservationists are working overtime to promote gorilla safe, eco-friendly mobile phones.  Definitely keep your media-tuned ear out for credible reports of research studies and information on gorilla-safe or gorilla-free components.

Keep in mind that the best preventative measure you can take for your own health is to limit the amount of time that you spend on a cell phone—best to use a land line, host a web tête-à-tête, or coffee-klatsch with your contacts.

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