Product Design, Repairability, and Recyclability
A major OEM recently stated that it had slowed the processing speed of some of its older phones as part of a systems update in order to mitigate problems with aging batteries causing system crashes during peak power usage. Simply replacing the aging battery would seem like a sensible alternative to this approach but the phones are not designed for the batteries to be removed or replaced by users.
This example is indicative of a growing tension between consumers’ desire for thin, lightweight devices and the repairability and recyclability of these devices. While the intent of this design may have been to accommodate consumer desire for smaller devices, the unintended consequences are significant and detrimental to the environment.
- The environment loses when batteries are sealed in phones because the average user does not have the tools or expertise to replace such batteries and the cost of professional replacement is high enough to lead many consumers to trade their old phone in and get a new phone rather than pay to have the battery replaced. This means manufacturing more new phones, and increased energy usage and mining of raw materials needed to manufacture those new devices.
- Some used devices that that have been traded in can be repaired and resold for a second life with a new owner. However, this is largely dependent on the cost to repair versus the sales price. In phones with embedded batteries, the cost to repair skyrockets compared to competing phones designed with user-replaceable batteries. Again, this results in additional premature scraping of devices with embedded batteries because they are deemed “Beyond Economic Repair.”
- Embedded batteries also create challenges for recycling the end-of-life devices. Lithium batteries cannot be safely shredded and, therefore, must be manually removed during the recycling process. This requires more manual labor or specialized equipment, which increases the costs of recycling.
Samsung’s 2016 Sustainability Report showed that 83.5% of the global warming impact of the Galaxy S6 phone occurred in pre-manufacturing, manufacturing, and distribution—before the device ever reached the consumer. Other studies have had similar findings regarding the consumption of resources and the environmental footprint of manufacturing vs. usage of electronic devices. Extending the useful life of devices minimizes the negative environmental impacts of electronics by reducing the demand for new devices, and thus the energy and mining for new materials needed to produce and distribute those devices.
Reuse and recycling are essential to a Circular Economy and sustainable environment. But they cannot play their roles effectively unless consumers and manufacturers recognize how much the design of products impacts their repairability and recyclability.
 http://images.samsung.com/is/content/samsung/p5/global/ir/docs/2016-samsung-sustainability-report.pdf (Page 165)