Will Samsung repair, refurbish or recycle millions of recalled phones?

Samsung Galaxy Note 7
CC BY 2.0 Mike Mozart

So far the company has not given a satisfactory answer, but one thing is clear: better design is desperately needed.

In October, Samsung announced a global recall of its new Galaxy Note 7 phones. The devices were smoking and catching fire, causing house fires and plane delays—not what the company had in mind in its attempt to outdo the iPhone. The Note 7 was Samsung’s most sophisticated phone to date, but it turned out to be a total failure. 1.8 million phones were sold in 10 countries, out of a total 4.3 million that were manufactured. All will be taken back and disposed of by Samsung.

While the company is stinging from such significant financial losses (estimated at $10 billion), it’s the environment that will really suffer because Samsung has not yet clarified how it will dispose of these phones. It told Motherboard that “the phones will not be repaired, refurbished, or resold ever again.”

This is appalling when you consider that the phones contain 730,000 kilograms (1.6 million pounds) of high-end technology that could be reused or recycled, if it were a priority. This would be the right step to take, as the phones contain precious metals such as cobalt (learn about Congolese mining practices here), tungsten, palladium, indium, neodymium, and gold that take a great toll on the planet to extract

Motherboard reports:

“Though smartphones weigh less than a pound, it was estimated in 2013 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers that it takes roughly 165 pounds of raw mined materials to make the average cell phone, a number that is certainly higher for the Note 7, being both one of the largest and most advanced smartphones phones ever created.”

Greenpeace has confronted Samsung on this issue, asking the public to sign a petition of already more than 25,000 names demanding that the company reuse and recycle as many of the materials as possible; or, at the very least, clarify their plans for these phones. So far Samsung has not provided a satisfactory answer.

The biggest problem of all is flawed design.

As Motherboard points out, once the battery was determined to be the source of the Note 7’s problems, there was nothing Samsung could do but recall the entire device because the battery is glued in place. This is a common practice to maximize the lightness and thinness of the newest smartphones, but it renders them virtually unrepairable.

Experts say this will not be the last example of exploding phones we see. Says Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit:

“This isn’t going to be the last time we see a device with an overheating or exploding battery. We are building little bombs into every single electronic device we use, and there’s a lot of challenging chemistry.”

All the more reason to create devices that can safely be taken apart, replace components, and extend their lifespan. Let’s hope Samsung listens and comes up with something really innovative to do with those millions of Note 7s. They could use this as an opportunity to become a leader in recycling and to develop previously unknown techniques.

Watch Greenpeace's video message to Samsung:

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