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IEEE Experts Identify the Fourth R-Word in Sustainability: Repair

IEEE Experts Provide Insight on How Repairability of Cellphones Can Lead to a More Environmentally Friendly Consumer Electronics Industry

22 April 2013 – Reduce, reuse, and recycle is the foundation of sustainable living. However, experts from IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization, identified repair as an equally important, environmentally friendly R-word, especially when it comes to the consumer electronics industry. Through modest design changes, cellphone manufacturers can improve the repairability of its products and streamline the upstream manufacturing process, thereby minimizing environmental impact while also improving global commerce and social development.

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC)'s Worldwide Mobile Phone Tracker, vendors will ship more than 1.7 billion mobile phones in 2013, and this number is forecasted to grow 1.4 percent year-over-year. There is a considerable environmental impact to manufacturing this volume of cellphones when you consider that it takes approximately 165 pounds of raw materials to manufacture a cellphone and over eight gallons of water to produce one microchip.

“Life Cycle Assessment of the Mobile Communication System UMTS: Towards Eco-Efficient Systems,” a paper from the IEEE International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment, indicates that extending the service life of the phone from one to four years decreases the environmental impact by about 40 percent. While innovations are being made to improve the sustainability of this process, cellphone manufacturers can garner more immediate environmentally friendly benefits by making their products more easily repairable.

“Cellphone companies manufacture a wide range of devices to meet the technological and budget requirements from early adopters to first-time cellphone owners in leading world markets and developing nations across the globe,” said Stu Lipoff, IEEE Fellow and president of IP Action. “Upstream cellphone manufacturing, which includes the mining of raw materials, mine tailings, and fresh water polluted in the process, as well as the energy required to refine and manufacture the device, can be reduced by employing designs that enable easier and more economic device repairability. In this way, refurbished phones from the first market can have an extended life through use in secondary and tertiary markets. This process would not only help reduce the environmental impact from the manufacturing process but also provide more advanced technology for developing nations, helping to stimulate global commerce.”

Making a Screwdriver a Tool of Sustainability
Advancements in technology are enabling manufacturers to make devices smaller and sleeker. However, along with this trend, they are also employing more closed designs and using materials that are making devices nearly unfixable.

“Regardless of size, there are numerous design features that manufacturers can use to improve the repairability of their products,” said Kyle Wiens, IEEE member and CEO of iFixit. “Simple things like utilizing openable cases, using screws rather than adhesives, and providing easy access to parts that are most likely to break, like screens, greatly improve the repairability of cellphones and significantly extend their life. It is imperative for designers to incorporate sustainable features into their products not only to make them last longer but to help promote a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.”


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