The mess we've gotten ourselves into

XV.2 March + April 2008
Page: 16
Digital Citation

SUSTAINABLY OURSSituated sustainability for mobile phones

Elaine Huang, Khai Truong

back to top 

Worldwide sales of mobile phones are expected to exceed one billion by the year 2009 [1]. In 2006, 143 million mobile phones were sold in the United States alone [2], and a 2007 study showed that American consumers use their phones for only an average of 17.5 months before replacing them [3]. Despite the global proliferation of phones, only 5 percent of phones are ever recycled [2], thus leading to a massive potential problem of e-waste.

back to top  Phones as Disposable Technology?

There is an increasingly common trend of acquiring technologies, most notably consumer electronics, with the expectation that they will be replaced or disposed of before they cease to be functionally viable. We refer to this trend as the disposable technology paradigm, and it is visible in increasingly ubiquitous devices such as laptops and portable mp3 players, which are typically replaced within a few years and whose usage lifetime is often much shorter than their functional lifetime. Mobile phones appear to be the most widespread example of such "disposable" technologies, and we therefore chose them as the starting point for our research into this phenomenon. The proliferation of these devices is a leap for communication capability, but their rapid consumption and turnover pose an increasingly urgent problem of waste and pollution. Mobile phones are a unique case of e-waste in many ways. Unlike most other personal devices, they often have a built-in replacement cycle as users receive a new device on a regular basis by renewing their service contracts, regardless of the state of their previous device. And in the case of North America, where we conducted our study, technology incompatibility can also necessitate getting a new phone, for example when someone switches from CDMA service to GSM service. These factors add to the proliferation of devices and disposal of technically functional phones.

When we began our study of mobile phone replacement and disposal practices, we were motivated by two goals stemming from the disposable technology paradigm. Our first goal was to understand what factors influenced people's decisions to replace their phones and what their practices for doing so were. Our second motivating goal for studying this phenomenon was to take that understanding and apply it toward the design of "greener" phones—those that would encourage longer use, less frequent disposal, more sustainable replacement practices, and overall reductions in e-waste. After undertaking our study, however, we discovered the importance of context in how people replace and dispose of their phones and realized that this context, in addition to the design of the object itself, should be taken into account when designing for and assessing the sustainability of objects. This approach, which we term situated sustainability, supports the identification of the various challenges and opportunities for improving the sustainability of the object on a broader scale.

back to top  Toward Sustainable Mobile Phone Design

Our perspective in approaching this work was strongly influenced by the rubric posited by Eli Blevis, in which he suggests several ways to understand and critique the sustainability of a design by considering such crucial issues as whether its components can be recycled, whether it lends itself to being shared or passed along to others, and whether the design promotes longevity of use [4]. We did not harbor illusions that the treatment of mobile phones as disposable technologies was either solely due to their design or a problem that could be solved entirely through better interaction design. We knew that contract-renewal incentives of free phones and fashion trends were part of the picture. We knew as well that achieving sustainable phones would also entail changes in terms of materials science, engineering, business, and economics. But understanding and influencing the user experience with phones through interaction design, especially with regards to the replacement and disposal experiences, seemed necessary and complementary steps along the path to greener phones.

We undertook a qualitative study examining people's practices and perceptions of their phones in which we surveyed 79 mobile phone owners and then interviewed 10 of them who had had very varied experiences—from throwing still-functioning phones away in the trash to collecting the old phones of others for use at a center for victims of domestic violence. We probed users' experiences with acquiring, replacing, and disposing of mobile phones and reporting our findings regarding people's practices and attribution of value to their phones [5].

Our findings showed that while physical design and functionality played a role in how people selected a new phone, contract-renewal incentives were far more likely to motivate the actual decision to replace an existing phone. We also found that many people were not enthusiastic about receiving new phones with a contract renewal, but rather accepted it as standard practice in which they engaged, even when they preferred their older phone to the newer model. Additionally, we found that people were generally aware of the potential environmental hazards of throwing a phone in the trash, but were often unaware of what their options for responsible disposal were and found that getting information about their options was difficult or required too much effort. Considering our data from this perspective, we identified several opportunities for rethinking mobile phone design in which the phone itself or aspects of the phone encourage sustainable actions [5]. Our findings suggest that many users would be receptive to phones that are designed to be easily upgraded for aesthetics or functionality as a viable alternative to complete technology replacement with a contract renewal. To address the difficulty of obtaining information about end-of-service options, we suggested the design of phone that is aware of when the user's contract is close to expiration and takes advantage of location awareness to send the user an SMS suggesting local facilities for donation and recycling, or other environmentally responsible actions.

back to top  Considering the Context of a Phone

While considering ways to redesign phones is an important step toward mobile phone sustainability, in talking to people about their experiences with mobile phones, it became clear to us that situation was also a driving factor in the extent to which people engaged in sustainable practices of disposal and replacement. Thus we need to think not only about the design of the phone, but also about how to leverage and influence context outside of the device itself to support sustainable phone practice. More broadly, we introduce the notion of situated sustainability, that idea that both a device and the context in which it exists should be considered first-order areas for design, and that an object's context must also be considered when evaluating the sustainability of the object.

Aspects of the context in which a mobile phone exists offer cues for design. Our findings indicated that serendipitous information and chance encounters with resources in the environment played a major role in the majority of sustainable interactions. For example, some people learned about recycling services because a friend happened to mention one that they had used. Other participants learned the locations of phone-donation drop boxes by seeing them in places they normally went to, such as a synagogue or a cosmetics shop. These findings suggest that we need to consider not only how to change phones themselves, but also how to change the contexts and environments in which phones exist to amplify this information and make it more visible, discoverable, and easily available.

We also discovered that there was a strong social or community component to engaging in sustainable phone disposal. Our study participants often told us that engaging in phone recycling was in some way a group activity, for example that one member of a family would contact all of the other members and collect the phones for recycling. Another common practice was to "ask around" when replacing a phone to try to find a recipient for an old but still functional phone. We found that people were generally unsuccessful in trying to find a taker for the phone and gave up after asking a few friends or family members, eventually putting the phone in storage or disposing of it in another way. However, the fact that people attempt to find another owner for their phones shows that they perceive it as an object of some value, and more important, an object that holds potential value for others. Their practices suggest that social networks and their supporting technologies could be leveraged as a way of amplifying the communication involved in giving a phone away. This would extend the usage lifetime of phones by increasing the likelihood of finding a subsequent owner for it.

back to top  Rethinking How to Evaluate the Sustainability of Objects

It also became clear that when we assess the sustainability of a device or object, the design of the object cannot be considered in isolation but rather must be examined in the context of the information and resources available in the object's environment. It is important to consider both the design of the object as well as the ecology in which it exists. As a simple example, we consider the case of a lithium-ion phone battery. Such batteries contain chemicals and nonbiodegradable materials and are even prone to explosion when exposed to high temperatures; they therefore should not be disposed of with household trash [6]. In the European Union, standardized recycling drop boxes for batteries are present in many frequently visited locations, such as supermarkets and post offices, thus making the infrastructure for sustainable action readily available to users of the object through serendipitous opportunity. Information about the availability of battery recycling is also implicitly conveyed simply through the visibility of these resources. In comparison, recycling of the same battery in much of the United States poses challenges because information about recycling services is not as readily available, and taking sustainable action may require the effort of locating a recycling service and then making an extra trip to bring the battery there. As this example illustrates, when assessing the sustainability object, in addition to considering how the object's design promotes recycling, reuse, reappropriation, or environmentally responsible disposal, it is also critical to consider the extent to which the ecology of which the phone is a part supports access to information about options, low-effort sustainable interaction, and easy access to other resources necessary to engage in sustainable actions.

back to top  Five HCI Challenges for Sustainable Mobile Phones

The path to sustainable mobile phones is a complex one that suggests the need to look not only at phones but also at the contexts in which they exist. Clearly, interaction design alone will not solve all of the issues of proliferation and e-waste generated by "disposable" technologies. That being said, we believe interaction design will play a substantial role in achieving sustainable mobile phones and phone practices. We therefore put forth what we believe to be the five most pressing interaction design challenges for mobile phones and their environments from the perspective of situated sustainability.

1. Make information more available. Information about sustainably responsible options needs to be delivered or made more readily available at low effort and cost to the user. Of particular importance is that information be available in a timely manner. For example, information about proper battery disposal could be made available near or at the end of the battery life.

2. Put opportunities in the environment. Resour ces for and information about sustainable phone actions should be made available where they will be most useful or most easily accessible. It is important to consider how to integrate opportunities for sustainable interactions in ways that leverage users' everyday routines to lower the effort necessary to engage in such interactions and increase the likelihood of serendipitous opportunities for sustainable action.

3. Develop novel alternatives to disposal. To avoid the unnecessary discarding of functional devices and lessen the need for the production of new devices, it is important to find novel alternatives that facilitate the reappropriation of phones or their components to extend their lifetime and transition them into other roles to which they are suited. It is of value here too to consider how both design in the environment and design of the phone could support and encourage reappropriation.

4. Create reasons for keeping. The value and purpose of a device may change over time. In order to foster a longer lifespan, another challenge is to create reasons for users to keep a phone. Perhaps designs that foster a stronger personal connection to the phone or create long use will enable an aging device with declining value to continue to offer benefit to users. It may also be worthwhile to consider ways to design phones that "get broken in" over time, such that users actually derive explicit benefits from maintaining a phone for a longer period.

5. Support upgrading and extension. Along with opportunities for reuse and reappropriation, phones and their environments should offer novel and valuable ways of upgrading and extending the phones to reduce the need for complete replacement. This requires consideration of how to design a phone that can be easily stripped and reconfigured. For example, adding new hardware should become as simple as changing the skin of the phone and plug-and-play capabilities on a desktop computer.

Mobile phones present a particular challenge for sustainability because of their increasing ubiquity and frequent replacement. In considering how interaction design can play a role in reversing the tide of mobile phone e-waste, examining the problem through the lens of situated sustainability may open possibilities for solutions that go beyond our devices.

back to top  References


2. NPD Group: "143 Million Mobile Phones Sold in the US in 2006"

3. "U.S. Wireless Mobile Phone Evaluation Study," J.D. Power and Associates, 2007.

4. Blevis, E. "Sustainable Interaction Design: Invention & Disposal, Renewal & Reuse." In the Proceedings of CHI 2007, 503-512.

5. Huang, E. M., Truong, K. N. "Breaking the Disposable Technology Paradigm: Opportunities for Sustainable Interaction Design for Mobile Phones." To appear in the Proceedings of CHI 2008.

6. "Lithium Ion, Nickel Cadmium, Nickel Metal Hydride Battery Best Practise Guide."

back to top  Authors

Elaine M. Huang
Motorola Labs and RWTH Aachen University

Khai N. Truong
University of Toronto

About the Authors

Elaine M. Huang is a researcher in the Social Media Research Lab at Motorola Labs. She recently completed a Humboldt Fellowship in the media computing group at RWTH Aachen University, where she began research on e-waste and sustainability. She received her Ph.D. in computer science with a focus in HCI from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She can be reached at

Khai N. Truong is an assistant professor in the University of Toronto's Department of Computer Science. His research lies at the intersection of human computer interaction and ubiquitous computing, and focuses on usability and acceptance issues surrounding automated capture and contextaware applications. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology. For more information visit


Eli Blevis

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Cell Phones #2, Atlanta 2005

back to top 

©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/0300  $5.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2008 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found