The Galaxy Note 7: Samsung’s Exploding Phone and it’s Environmental Fallout
“The Samsung Galaxy Note 7,” Proclaims Christoph Waltz to the millions of Americans watching the Olympics over the summer, is “perfect for busy Americans like us!” This commercial was still airing in the U.S. when the first phone reportedly exploded in South Korea.
On September 1st the device became available for purchase in China, and then on September 2nd, Samsung announced its first global recall of the 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 devices sold so far. The description of the Note 7 as “exploding” sounds like an exaggeration, when what is actually happening is the phone’s battery overheating. But, Samsung is undergoing a class action lawsuit for injuries caused by the device, and at one point a Southwest Airlines flight was evacuated due to the volume of smoke released by a Note 7 on-board. In fact, passengers are not allowed to bring a Galaxy Note 7 on board a US flight, per the FAA and the DoT.
The Note 7’s battery does not detach from the phone, which has made this issue far more complicated and expensive for Samsung. They cannot simply ship their users a replacement battery, instead, they have to replace the whole phone. In September, Samsung reintroduced the Note 7 to the market, taking new orders for the device, as the battery issue was said to have been fixed. Users who still had an unexploded Note 7 were encouraged to exchange it for a new, safe one.
“Busy, busy, busy,” Christoph Waltz’s description of the modern American during his summer commercial reverberated through Samsung’s consumer base. No Note 7 user I know was excited to disconnect and give up their phone for the interim, but at least, they were told, the issue had been resolved.
As we all know, the replacement phones continued to explode due to the same battery issue, though Samsung desperately claimed user error and external factors, until on October 10th Samsung finally gave up, ceasing production on their failed smartphone.
The last time Samsung experienced a cell phone catastrophe of this magnitude was more than twenty years ago, and it is an interesting enough story to warrant retelling here. Chairman Lee is the current head of Samsung, the son of the company’s founder, and he has been running Samsung since the 1960s. Before the Note 7 crisis, Bloomberg.com wrote an article on Samsung called “How Samsung Became the World’s No.1 Smartphone Maker” which included the following story: In 1995 Chairman Lee gave out cell phones as New Year’s gifts, but it turned out that the phones were “inoperable.” So, in response, he had his employees “assemble a pile of 150,000 devices in a field,” and had “more than 2,000 staff members gathered round the pile.” And then he had the pile of 150,000 phones set on fire. Once the fire died out, he had the remains bulldozed. Someone present remembers the Chairman saying, “If you continue to make poor-quality products like these, I’ll come back and do the same thing.” In the narrative Bloomberg.com tells about the rise of Samsung, this is a watershed moment – low-quality products will not be tolerated. The man burned his own product rather than sell it because it didn’t reflect the standard he was leading Samsung. The same man was running Samsung the day they realized that the replacement phones explode too, though setting electronics on fire is no longer an acceptable way of communicating displeasure with your staff (not that the Note 7 needs much encouragement).
However, Samsung’s responsibility does not end with the cessation of production of the Note 7. Sure, they aren’t making any new Note 7s, but what are they going to do with the 4.3 million (time-bombs) phones they had manufactured, and were selling across at least ten different countries? There is some question still as to the number and distribution of the Note 7s. 4.3 million were manufactured, which seems to be a figure coming from South Korean news outlets. At the same time the numbers range from one to two million devices sold in the United States, and how many of the remaining phones were actually sold globally, versus how many are sitting, untouched by consumers in Samsung warehouses, is unconfirmed.
In the U.S., Samsung shipped a fire-proof box to its unlucky Note 7 users along with an instruction sheet telling them to ensure that their phone would be shipped by ground, rather than by air, along with gloves to wear while handling their device (which had once charged at their bedside while they slept, blissfully ignorant). This elaborate shipping process inspired Gizmodo to suppose that. “Presumably the thermal shielding will keep our non-explosive mail items safe from recalled Note 7s en route to a landfill, where they’ll keep several thousand copies of E.T. company until the sun burns out.”Which brings us to our question: what is Samsung going to do with all of those phones? Greenpeace has called the Note 7 a potential “environmental fiasco,” and Samsung has not said much on the issue.
Fortune, for example, wrote an article attempting to answer the same question, citing Wired, both relying on the knowledge that Samsung will act in accordance with EPA regulation, which requires the responsible and sustainable handling of the phones. Essentially, they are not answering the question, “what will happen to the Galaxy Note 7,” but rather, “where do phones go once the American consumer has moved on?” At the same time, organizations like EcoWatch and Greenpeace (who released a Note 7 factsheet which breaks down the device into its parts) provide, I think, a much more realistic look at the potential environmental fallout of Samsung’s recall.
A Samsung spokesperson told Motherboard, (who reported on the recall as “an Environmental Travesty”), “’We have a process in place to safely dispose of the phones,’” meaning that, “the phones will not be repaired, refurbished, or resold ever again.” There has been very little clarity beyond this statement regarding this specific case. However, the assurance that the device will not be “repaired, refurbished, or resold” is significant, because it immediately rules out a great deal of the life-cycle of an average cell phone. The majority of phones are replaced by the consumer with a newer model within two years, at which point they are resold, more than once, depending on their condition. The idea of recycling a phone refers more to reusing it rather than breaking it down into its component parts (plastic, metals, glass, etc.) and reusing them individually, which is, itself, not a perfect process. Beyond the environmental impact of making the phone (the most environmentally unfriendly part of the smartphone process occurs pre-manufacture), and then shipping it back and forth in insulated boxes, comes the fact that the Note 7 is going to have to skip to the utter end of a smartphone’s life cycle, in some cases straight from Samsung’s own warehouses.
Samsung’s 2016 Sustainability Report (entitled Global Harmony with People, Society & Environment) is brightly colored (a lot of green, unsurprisingly), full of graphs, and over 200 pages long. For a company as big as Samsung, ‘e-waste’ is obviously not the length and breadth of their sustainability policy, but it does seem like, for an electronics company, six uses of the phrase is minimalistic. However, the report does provide information about the existing process into which the Galaxy Note 7 will apparently be integrated. The report describes how Samsung has, “established waste product collection systems in each region and works tirelessly to enhance the collection & recycling of waste products,” and that their recycling policies are intended to, “maximize the recycling of waste products and to minimize their environmental impact.” The report makes it clear that the focus of Samsung’s e-waste policy is on collection. Samsung “collected a total of 2.26 million tons of waste products from 2009 to 2015, and aims to collect 3.8 million tons (cumulative) of waste products by 2020.” Again, this number does not refer to smartphones alone or even just portable electronics, and we should keep in mind that refrigerators are considerably heavier than the six ounce Note 7.
But what does the collection of e-waste entail? The United Nations published a report in 2009 entitled “Recycling – From E-waste To Resources.” This report describes e-waste recycling as consisting, “of three main subsequent steps: i) collection, ii) sorting/dismantling and pre-processing (incl. sorting, dismantling, mechanical treatment) and iii) end-processing (incl. refining and disposal).” While collecting e-waste is important, it is clearly not the only necessary step. The amount of e-waste that is collected supplies a base amount. For example, if Samsung recycled 100% of its collected e-waste between 2009 and 2015, then, as we know from their sustainability report, they would have recycled 2.26 million tons. Samsung’s lack of transparency as to the second and third step in the e-waste recycling process leaves us with very little idea of how effective the process their e-waste undergoes is, never mind how much of it goes uncollected in the first place.
The UN sums up the process of treating e-waste as aiming at, “either removing the hazardous items or at separation of as much as possible of the main recyclable materials (e.g. metals, glass and plastics), but achieving both objectives would be most desired.” When dealing with e-waste like smartphones, recyclers have to balance the sustainability of the recycling process itself (every type of device comes with a battery, after all) with the impact the reuse of such materials can have on future manufacturing. Samsung’s sustainability report, for instance, tells us that over 50% of the environmental impact of their average smartphone comes from gathering the materials required to assemble the device. The use of recycled materials from old e-waste can potentially cut that figure down, but only if the process of extracting those materials is itself sustainable. And then, there is the human cost. Handling e-waste during this stage can expose workers to hazardous chemicals, even when dealing with non-explosive devices.
However, the Note 7, in particular, is tricky. It isn’t just any old smartphone. It’s an exploding smartphone. This complicates the process of responsibly handling the device’s post-mortem period. Is it safe break open millions of these phones, digging out the volatile battery for the phone to be processed? Frankly, is it cost effective to take the necessary safety precautions?
E-waste raises serious sustainability issues. There are many different tracks that a company or government can take with regard to old electronics, with varying financial, environmental, and medical outcomes. In their November 1st press release, Greenpeace initially claims that Samsung, “has said that it will not recycle the phones,” and then later in the same release that Samsung, “has not stated how they will deal with the phones, or whether the phones will go through recycling or smelting programs.” It is true that Samsung has not been clear on this issue, and Greenpeace is justified in calling on Samsung for greater transparency.
The U.N. admits that “very limited information on e-waste treatment capacity in the EU Member States can be obtained.” Transparency is a major hurdle that has to be overcome when researching e-waste treatment and electronics recycling. I started with the Note 7, which was national news in the US over the summer, becoming culturally relevant enough for Late-Night comedians like Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher to incorporate it into their shows. The hype surrounding the Note 7 pre-release made the device newsworthy even before they started catching on fire, but I still struggled to find concrete statistics regarding sales and distribution, never mind information about Samsung’s dismantling and treatment processes, or whether the Note 7 will experience any of them.
And I think I know why.
As I mentioned, Samsung’s sustainability report focuses heavily on their efforts to collect e-waste. And in the case of the Note 7, it appears that the collection phase is at least wrapping up by now. What happens next, may be out of Samsung’s hands. In the sustainability section of Samsung’s US website, Samsung describes their four US partners, each of whom is one of the “leading e-waste recyclers in the United States” (though only two are specifically named). The site goes on to reassure concerned readers that, “Samsung conducted extensive research into the qualifications, capabilities, and integrity of our recycling partners. Since then, Samsung has audited, and will continue to conduct periodic audits, of these recyclers and their operations to ensure their performance remains in keeping with Samsung’s stringent policies and contractual terms. The contractual terms to which every recycling partner must abide include, among others, that they will not, under any circumstance, incinerate, send to solid waste landfill, or export toxic waste.” Furthermore, “If, at any time, the performance of Samsung’s recycling partners violates any term of our agreement, Samsung will immediately terminate that relationship.”
So, in the US at least, the Note 7 will not, in fact, be keeping thousands of copies of E.T. company until the sun burns out, nor will they be incinerated under Chairman Lee’s watchful (vengeful) eye, or, for that matter, be shipped to a third-world country to wait out the earth itself among foreign language versions of E.T.
Whether or not the composite parts will be broken down and recycled is hidden in the contracts between Samsung and their various e-waste recycling partners, and I have a feeling that Samsung is grateful for that buffer. Greenpeace, Motherboard, EcoWatch, and others are correct to be concerned about the future of the Note 7, especially since over half of the phones were sold in countries where there is less oversight of e-waste, and the particularly volatile Note 7 may indeed be exempt from recycling mandates due to the specific hazards of handling this device.
Next month I’m going to be looking more closely at e-waste, and the governmental regulations in place in the United States specifically.
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