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Will Modular phones save the environment?


Modular phones continue to hog limited headlines globally. While there has been steady progress (and hiccups) within the industry, many of us are still unfamiliar with the modular phone concept. What exactly is a modular smartphone? Think of it like a truly customizable device. With replaceable parts not limited to back covers or cases, but independent components (also called ‘bloks’ or ‘modules).

The current design consists of a permanent long-lasting exoskeleton or structural frame. This acts as the base where you insert modules for different features (like camera, Bluetooth, Wifi, etc). The primary idea behind this is to make phone’s ‘democratic’, allowing you to choose functions that you’d like, and discard the ones you don’t need. In the process, it of course, reduces electronic waste and, therefore, saves the environment.  But many critics doubt whether the modular phone concept will really help reduce the amount of e-waste generated from phones.

The modular cellphone prototype like ‘Modu’ had been made back in 2007; but the current concept of modular smartphone became popular with the Phonebloks concept designed by Dave Hakkens in 2013. The famous ‘Project Ara’ was a joint initiative by Phonebloks and Google’s Motorola to develop a working prototype of modular phone. Set to release its first model sometime in 2016, it was ultimately abandoned. But in its short span of existence, it had competition already. The Netherlands based Fairphone, announced its launch of the Fairphone 2. It, the “world’s first modular smartphone” – went on sale around December 2015. 

It sure is a green concept

With modular phones, the amount of e-waste generated is expected to decrease by a significant amount. This will be possible because users of these phones don’t need to buy new phones when they want an upgrade. Instead, they could just replace the modules of the features they require. This may be a better camera module or higher processor module. Moreover, the structural frameworks of these phones are made to last for several years and expected to be sold at prices affordable by the major population. Google had estimated that the cost of Project Ara’s modular phone would start from $50. If this was true, modular phones would’ve gone on to be chosen by many users who would go for a long-lasting yet customisable device.

An average modular phone user is estimated to generate only 10 to 20 percent of the total e-waste that could have been generated by a normal phone user. We won’t have to discard our entire device just because we want a better camera or other features. A second-hand module can even be resold to other mild users who don’t really opt for the advanced features. Modular phones potentially offer a bright solution for the reduction of e-waste generation by reducing the amount of phones discarded annually.

The counter argument

It is possible that the modular phone concept can take an unexpected turn and move away from its primary eco-friendly motive. The reason behind this is that the technological companies seem to be more interested in its functionality and user-friendliness rather than its sustainability. Custom-building supported by modular phones will attract tech enthusiasts, especially early adopters. Users can toss away the easily replaceable modules for new ones which can still increase the amount of e-waste generated. The upgrade process could take off at a very high pace. There is no guaranteeing that tech enthusiasts will choose to stick to the same modules. Or even the same endoskeleton for several years.

The simplest prototype of Google’s modular phone was expected to be sold for just $50. But the modules that would’ve offered features and upgrades for the frame could’ve been priced at an expensive range. This could lead to customers opting for a more affordable non-modular smartphone with same features. So the environment-friendly concept is still a pretty big challenge. Many critics presume that the concept would be another waste-stream, just slightly different in rate from e-waste generation by normal phones.

We still aren’t sure how these phones will impact our environment. But their development alone helps in creating awareness among the masses regarding the necessity of checking our e-waste generation. The sustainability of these phones will highly depend on us – the users. Even if the technological companies provide us the working prototype, it is mainly users who can contribute to e-waste reduction. If customers choose to reduce e-waste rather than just running after fashionable devices and greedy upgrades, the idea of modular phones may actually save the environment.