Practical Magic

What happened with Samsung's smartphone upcycling program

Two years ago, Samsung Electronics empowered some of its engineers to reimagine ways to reuse the older model Galaxy mobile phones collected through the company’s aggressive electronic-waste collection program, which amasses about 100 million pounds of gadgets annually.

That idea became the foundation for an open-source upcycling initiative, spearheaded by Samsung's Internet of Things (IoT) division, that encourages other developers and enthusiasts to do the same.

"To the extent that you can keep functional materials in commerce, that is the highest order of a circular economy strategy. These products have enough processing power to do a lot of things," said Mark Newton, head of corporate sustainability at Samsung Electronics America, during a recent update about the company’s environmental initiatives.

To turn an older phone that’s maybe two to three years old into a new platform ready for development, Samsung’s engineers reimaged the devices with updated software, allowing custom applications to be developed — not what you would find on your personal phone.

While many initial concepts from the pilot program were consumer-focused — need a pet-feeding app? — some ideas that have emerged could prove far more impactful from a commercial or societal perspective. 

One example is an application that could convert a camera-equipped phone into a $300 medical device capable of screening for eye diseases, an alternative to the thousands of dollars that a healthcare professional might have to spend on proprietary equipment, Newton suggested.

The sensibility behind that idea relates to Samsung’s bigger push to build awareness among its customers for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Yes, it even has an app for that, which explains the 17 goals and encourages people to support specific projects. 

The medical device idea isn’t an actual product (at least not yet), but it could prove beneficial in emerging economies that are unserved when it comes to healthcare diagnostics — and the idea that it could become a commercial offering isn’t totally off the table. Samsung demonstrated the concept during its recent developer’s conference and plans to pilot the solution in several countries aside from Vietnam, the initial market, Newton said.

Why is this intriguing? Samsung is one of the biggest e-waste collectors in the world — it has taken back more than 1 billion pounds cumulatively in the United States since 2008, although you have to keep in mind that these aren’t just mobile phones. Samsung makes everything from refrigerators to televisions, which are far heavier although getting lighter with each new model. Its long-term goal is to take back more than 15 billion pounds of electronics globally by 2030, Newton said.

The company’s focus on reuse is just one component of a fairly detailed set of circular economy principles (they’re outlined starting on page 31 of its latest corporate responsibility report [PDF]). It’s also talking up broader repair options to keep gadgets in the field for a longer time, and it’s introducing new modular designs for its refrigerators that allow for more flexibility of materials and configuration.

Like many consumer electronics companies, Samsung is also putting a big focus on using post-consumer materials — especially recycled plastic — within its products. You can find it in its refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners, televisions, monitors and mobile phone chargers.

In 2018, the company used 40,000 tons of materials recycled from water bottles and other sources. By 2030, it plans to reach 500,000 tons in the "accumulated" amount of recycled plastics used.

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