Sprint is the first telecom company to offer "carbon-negative" iPhone accessories. Later this month, it will sell plastic handset cases made using waste greenhouse gases instead of petroleum. The $30 black and pink cases for the iPhone 5 and 5s will become available for purchase at Sprint's website.
The main ingredient in the cases, AirCarbon, comes from startup Newlight Technologies, which calls its product carbon-negative, even after production and end of life are taken into account. The company uses carbon dioxide or methane from farms and landfills as well as from wastewater treatment and anaerobic digester plants. AirCarbon "can then be formed and molded into almost any given design," it says.
"As a wireless company, we are at the intersection of new technology," said Amy Hargroves, Sprint's director of corporate responsibility. "Our role is to bring this kind of innovation to Sprint to support the creation of the circular economy — turning waste, in this case greenhouse gas, into a useable product for consumers in the form of a cell phone case to displace oil-based plastics."
Sprint sees this new accessory as a way to accelerate sustainability "by leveraging its role as a large purchaser and supplier" as well as to influence consumers to adopt potentially market-disrupting products. Eventually the company hopes to offer more carbon-based products, even in its brick-and-mortar stores.
Why focus on AirCarbon instead of, say oil-based plastic that's already recycled, or plastic made from the start from plants?
"There isn't one option that is going to change the world. Instead it takes a combination of efforts and innovations to collectively create change," Hargroves said. "We like this option because it removes greenhouse gases from the air — the key contributor to global warming...We aren’t limiting ourselves to just this one technology solution, but see it as a potential game changer."
Among its hardware-related sustainability efforts, Sprint recently overhauled its long-running cell phone buyback and recycling program. Last year Sprint worked with UL Environment to develop EPEAT ratings for more sustainable mobile phones. In 2011 the company released the Samsung Replenish as an eco-friendly handset, and in 2009 offered its first recycled-plastic phone, the Samsung Reclaim.
"We have already participated in cases that are made from post-consumer recycled plastic," Hargroves said. "We had a case made from tree resin. This case is something new and frankly, incredible...Imagine if this technology could be scaled to the point that it replaced oil-based plastics."
Sprint's accessories long have been made of recycled PET plastic, and PVC-free. It once sold the solar-powered, handheld Solio charger as an accessory. Sprint's packaging has been fully recyclable since 2009, and it has worked with the San Diego Zoo Centre for Bioinspiration to experiment with packaging that imitates patterns in nature. The AirCarbon-based cases can be recycled at a plastics recycling center, but not via curbside pickup.
Although creating plastic from waste gases has been possible for decades, Newlight says it has accelerated the process. And not only does AirCarbon capture greenhouse gases, but it is cheaper to produce than petroleum-based plastics.
In addition, according to Newlight, "the weight of the new cell phone case is the same weight in carbon (as carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas) that has been sequestered and would otherwise be part of the air by making the case, generating a net positive environmental impact."
“AirCarbon offers a new paradigm in which products we use every day, like cellphone cases, become part of the environmental solution,” said Mark Herrema, Newlight's CEO and co-founder, in a statement. "Newlight’s mission is to replace petroleum-based plastics with greenhouse gas-based plastics on a commodity scale by out-competing on price and performance."
Newlight is planning to use AirCarbon, formerly called AirFlex, to make more products, including chairs, food storage containers, bags and films. (See more about how its process works in the video below.) Chairs made with AirCarbon by Wisconsin-based furniture company KI appeared on the floor of Greenbuild 2013 in November.
Last year Newlight secured a $4 million grant from the Department of Energy to help scale up production.
LanzaTech, another company working to turn waste gases into products, is partnering with Virgin Atlantic to develop waste-based biofuel.
Top image of pink, AirCarbon-based iPhone case via Sprint