Mobile phone madness

ap525270798639Early this afternoon, while strolling around downtown Bethesda, Md., near my home, I saw two people sharing a table at an outdoor cafe, both staring at their phones; pedestrians crossing streets while texting; driver after driver holding phones; and a young woman on a bike, talking on the phone. People say “wearable technology will be part of our future but it strikes me that people are already all but surgically attached to their phones.

It’s hard to remember a time when most people didn’t carry mobile phones but, in fact, it wasn’t that long ago: the late 1990s.* Now that mobile technology is ubiquitous, cell phone manufacturers and wireless carriers have to work harder to sell new phones. This explains the TV and Internet ads you have surely seen this summer, touting more frequent upgrades.

That marketing campaign is the topic of my latest column for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Can you remember life without a cellphone? In the late 1990s, only one in five Americans had one. Today, there are 102 active mobile phonesor connected tablets for every 100 Americans, according to CTIA, The Wireless Association.

This is a problem for the cellphone industry. Now that the industry has sold a phone or tablet to just about everyone in the US, the challenge is to sell more of them, more often, by persuading people to get rid of the perfectly good ones they now possess and upgrade to the new new thing.

It’s a classic example of consumerism run amok. Surely you’ve seen the marketing, which has exploded in recent months on TV and online.

“Two years is too long to wait for a new phone!” says T-Mobile, which recently introducing a replacement program called Jump! “Upgrade to the phone you want twice every 12 months, not once every two years.”

About 152 million cell phones were discarded in 2010, according to EPA. Only about 10 percent of those were recycled. Most end up in desk drawers, attics or, worst of all, landfills. What can be done? Read the column.

A pile of mobile phone

*For the record, I bought my first cell phone in 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks. I love my iPhone. It’s a marvelous device. But I try to remember that I lived most of the life without one.

Sorry, wrong number: AT&T’s recycling claim doesn’t add up

Sprint is not the biggest cell phone company, but it is the most environmentally-friendly by most accounts. Sprint ranked No. 3 of all US companies in Newsweek’s annual Green Rankings, well ahead of rivals AT&T (28) and Verizon Communication (54). It offered in-store recycling of mobile devices before AT&T or Verizon. And when an independent research firm, Compass Intelligence, compared the recycling and reuse programs of the major carriers, Sprint came out on top. What’s more, Sprint’s CEO, Dan Hesse, personally has led the company’s efforts, as I learned when we met a couple of years ago. [See my 2010 blogpost, CEO Dan Hesse: Sprinting towards sustainability.]

So I was puzzled to see a recent AT&T press release with the headline: AT&T Customers Break World Record for Recycling Wireless Devices. The release said:

By recycling 50,942 devices during a one-week period, AT&T* customers broke the world record for collecting the most wireless devices in a week as certified by Guinness World Records.

It also noted AT&T collected about three million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. The release got a lot of attention, and was widely and uncritically covered–here at the Mother Nature Network, here at Treehugger, at Environmental Leader and elsewhere.

There’s just one problem.

This so-called world record is all but meaningless. Sprint almost surely recycles a lot more cell phones than AT&T, although direct comparisons are impossible.

Consider: AT&T says it collected 3 million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. Sprint says it collected 11 million in 2011–an average of more than 200,000 a week, easily topping AT&T’s so-called record. [click to continue…]

Your dollar-draining, energy-sucking, carbon-polluting cable TV habit…

So we already knew that watching too much TV dulls the mind and costs a bundle (my cable bill’s $170 a month, including Internet and phone).

Now we know, thanks to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, that your super-snazzy set-top box and DVR combo that means you will never have to miss another episode of Two Men and a Baby is costing you more money, wasting energy and generating carbon emissions.

With more than 80% of Americans now subscribing to cable, the numbers, taken as a whole, grow pretty big, the NRDC says:

In 2010, the electricity required to operate all U.S. set-top boxes was equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, resulted in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and cost households more than $3 billion.

They aren’t as startling on a house-by-house basis–each box, on average, costs about $18.75 a year to operate, depending on local electricity prices.  But much of that money, it turns out, is wasted. About two-thirds of the energy consumed by the set-top is used when no one is watching TV or recording programs.

In a press release, NRDC’s efficiency guru, Noah Horowitz, says:

Set-top boxes are the ultimate home energy vampires, silently sucking significant amounts of energy and money when nobody’s using them. The consumer, who pays the electric bill, deserves technologies without hidden costs.

On his blog, Noah goes on to say:

The biggest finding from our field work was that the only way to really turn these boxes off is to unplug them — not an attractive option. For almost all the boxes we tested, hitting the power button simply dims the clock or display. For a typical DVR, instead of consuming 30 Watts when on, the box used 29 Watts, only the difference of one Watt.

The problem here, as it is with many wasteful practices in the economy, is a split incentive between the owner and the user. (Economists call this a principle-agent problem.) It’s the reason why a landlord doesn’t care how inefficient an air conditioner is if the tenant pays the bill, and why few people dining out on an open-ended expense account pay much attention to the bill. In this case, the  cable operator (Comcast, Time Warner) or phone company (Verizon, AT&T) that buys the set-top box doesn’t pay the electric bill, and so they have no reason to design, build, buy or demand a more efficient box. Markets aren’t working the way they should.

[click to continue…]

An easy “green” solution to high gas prices

Where are you working, right now?

If you’re in the office, would you rather be at home?

Verizon sent me this infographic on tele-commuting, which the company calls telework:

They also sent along this comment from a Verizon worker named Nena Faulkner who is part of their sustainability team. [click to continue…]