Samsung's New Eco-Friendly Cell Phone

While the international press and Olympic athletes complain about the environmentally-unfriendly air quality in Beijing, Samsung plans to bring a little green to the games today with its new E200 Eco bioplastic cell phone. Unlike traditional plastics, which are derived from (non-renewable) petroleum-based products, bioplastics are derived from (renewable) biological sources, such as corn.

The E200 Eco is actually not the first bioplastic phone from Samsung. This last June, Samsung released the W510 and the F268 phones in Asia. However, the W510 and F268 phones both use traditional plastics and biolplastics in their designs; but the E200 Eco is Samsung's first phone "in which the entire case is bioplastic." (The E200 Eco will be available in Europe in September, but an American release date hasn't been announced yet.) For all three phones, the bioplastic being used is a corn derivative. In addition to eschewing a petroleum-derived plastic, Samsung also claims to be producing the phones "using techniques that eliminate harmful materials like lead, cadmium and mercury," and "the F268 and the new E200 Eco devices and their chargers are also free of a common flame retardant that can harm the environment."

 Samsung E200 Eco (Source: New York Times)
The New York Times reports that other companies are using bioplastics in their consumer electronics, such as Nokia and NEC. In fact, the Business Standard states that Nokia will "launch around 40 new green phone models this year -- each comprising biodegradable components that can be easily recycled." An additional benefit to using a renewable-source that is derived from biomass sources is that the materials will degrade over time in landfills. Nokia also plans on reducing the amount of toxic materials it uses in its batteries, and "in markets like the US, Nokia encloses a pre-addressed, postage-paid envelope in sales packs, providing customers an easy method for returning used products for recycling, at no cost to them."

Migrating manufacturing that has traditionally been based on non-renewable sources, such as petroleum, over to renewable sources, such as corn-based bioplastics is a solid step toward environmental responsibility. And as cell phone designs incorporate fewer toxic components and more landfill-friendly degradable materials, these efforts even more compelling. There is a potential downside to using corn as the basis for bioplastics, however, and this can be firmly placed in the category of "no good deed goes unpunished":

Worldwide food prices have risen dramatically these last few years, and many pundits put that blame firmly on the increased production of ethanol derived from corn. With more corn going towards ethanol production, that potentially means less corn going to food production and to feed for livestock. The Portland Tribune reports:

"The consensus is that ethanol is indeed responsible for making food more expensive. The question is how much. Estimates range from a paltry 2 percent or 3 percent to the World Bank’s high of 75 percent.

Ethanol accounts for a significant but not dominant share of U.S. corn production. Last year, 17 percent of the 13 billion bushels of field corn produced by U.S. farmers was used for ethanol."

If an increasing number of consumer electronics are made from corn-derived bioplastics, then this could divert even more corn away from food-related production and thus contribute even more towards rising food prices. We'll being buying environmentally-responsible cell phones and burning fuel from more renewable sources, but we'll paying a lot more for our bagels and beer.