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Earth Day on the cell phone

Fri Apr 24, 2009 - 2:22 PM EDT - By Jay Gross


I spent some of Earth Day hanging out on my balcony admiring the dogwood tree, appreciating the mockingbirds' songs, watching the frolicking squirrels, drinking organic smoothies, nibbling fruits from a plastic bowl - and listening for clients' calls on my cell phone. I'd really like to save the planet, particularly the trees and the songbirds, but I'm off to an inauspicious start.

Palm's Blog has an article summarizing cell phone technologies used (abused, I would argue) in support (?) of environmental issues. It's a good article, with useful links to the projects that are detailed. But talking about saving the planet and cell phones in the same article? LetÂ’s hope Mother Nature doesn't notice.

Being a computer, a cell phone concentrates heavy metals. Bad. It's powered by a battery full of hazardous substances, whether or not it's replaceable. Moreover, with our ridiculous insistence on having a new model every few months, all of this bad stuff lands in a landfill, there to plague the future. The carriers suck up electricity, generated by who knows what kind of Earth-non-friendly means, and spew out debatably harmful megahertz and gigahertz radiowaves from thousands of ugly cell towers that mar the dwindling beauty of our planet. Are you feeling guilty yet? I am.

Before I go any further, I confess to owning six of the things. Five of them stay powered up all the time, though only my (red!) Centro) graces anybody's network. I feel bad about it all, but I can't bring myself to toss a working $600 (crimson!) Treo 680 in the trash. Nor my two $500 Treo 650s, nor even my dead Treo 700p, which I use (no kidding) for a paperweight.

I'm typing this article on my "big" computer. It contains four fans that spew so much warm air into my office that the airconditioner has a hard time keeping up. Now, about that energy conservation thing.

Palm's blog article talks about using GPS and cell technologies to track the effects of air pollution along a bicycle commuter's route. "Urban Sensing," the technology calls itself. "A leader in this field is the University of California Los Angeles CENS Lab. It has a number of projects that use mobile devices as mobile sensing devices. CycleSense is one example. Bikers carry a mobile phone equipped with GPS technology (or a GPS logger) during their commute. These tools automatically upload their routes to a secure website. Participants can log in to their private website to see their route combined with existing data, including air quality, time-sensitive traffic conditions, and aggregate traffic accidents along the route. Participants can obtain suggestions to improve their routes based on individual preferences (to reduce exposure to air pollution). Bikers can document hazards and impediments along their way by taking photos with a mobile phone or by sending a text message to CENS servers to generate maps and alternative transportation models."

This project does nothing to reduce, control, or restrict the air pollution. It only focuses, like the other projects Palm mentions, on helping people cope with the problem. I sense that European cell companies are taking a more useful approach. Orange, in the U.K., for example, demonstrated a wind-powered cell phone charger station at a music festival last year - here's a link to my article. The picture is way cool.

Orange (UK and other places) and other carriers have been working on powering their cell towers without hooking them up to the electric grids. While that sounds admirably Earth-considerate, it also reduces their immense electric bills. Besides sparing the Earth, if their costs decrease they could pass along lower rates to users, right? Sure. Keep on believing that.

Don't be too encouraged, however. The bigger barrier appears to be user acceptance. A poll of U.K. mobile customers found that 49 per cent of them would refuse to pay more for a handset made from recycled materials. The body of Samsung's E200, for example, is made entirely from "bio-plastic" extracted from corn. A cheeky 13 per cent said they would not buy a mobile phone made from recycled materials. At all.

Reported in The Register, a British techie publication, the poll by market research group Opinium Research said 88 percent of the 2048 respondents "couldn't care less about the eco-friendliness of their mobile phone." However, many simply "don't know how hazardous a mobile phone can actually be to the environment" if disposed of improperly; 39 per cent said they either thought phones don't contain hazardous materials or didn't know if phones do.

In the U.S., Sprint at least is trying. According to Mongabay.com, which exults over the adoption of windmills to generate electricity, Sprint installed a wind turbine to power its headquarters building. Beleaguered by all, the company at least has a plan. They're reportedly testing hydrogen fuel cells to power several of their towers, and experimenting with geothermal cooling as a replacement for conventionally-powered air conditioning in warmer climates. In California, Sprint is testing turbines fueled with natural gas for backup power. Unlike oil, natural gas is still plentiful. That is, until we burn it all up in our Earth-unfriendly pursuit of happiness.

Sermon done. Do as I say, not as I do, and go in peace. Now it's time to get into my gasoline powered automobile (a fuel-efficient small one, I hasten to add) and head out for a bio-engineered lunch in the comfort of an air-conditioned café. For the record, I would definitely pay a little extra for a cell phone made of recycled materials. Hear that, Palm? And I'd switch carriers to use one that employed "green" power. Oh, wait, I'm already on Sprint.

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