O2 charging its way to sustainability

Under O2's rate, reduce and recycle strategy, the company has taken a bold step to make charger-free products the 'new normal' by 2015. Leigh Stringer reports

The company piloted the ‘Charger Out of the Box’ scheme with the HTC One X+ in 2012 and extended it to other models, the HTC One handset, Sony Xperia SP and Nokia Lumia 925 in 2013.

A bold move in an industry built on consumer’s purchasing new equipment. But the decision was clear after the company referred to research showing that there are more than 100 million unused chargers in the UK alone and that 70% of customers already have the suitable charger for their new phone.

Redundant chargers represent components weighing as much as 1,000 London buses and, according to O2, enough copper wire and plastic to wrap The O2 Arena more than 200,000 times. It also calculated that if these chargers were thrown away, it would require four Olympic swimming pools-worth of landfill space.

Prior to launching the initiative, O2 carried out research to determine how customers would react to the idea, which returned unexpected results. The research showed that only 47% of customers would be happy about receiving a phone without a charger.

In order to change customer opinion, the company “explained its motives”, which was to gain environmental savings with “no cost to customers and no extra profit for O2”. The communication effort worked with 82% of customers buying phones without a charger during the pilot.

To effectively roll-out the scheme, O2 needed to ensure customers weren’t impacted by the change, so it decided to offer the charger-free phones with a USB-to micro-USB cable, which can be used with existing chargers that have a USB input or with a PC.

An industry first, the scheme is expected to provide savings in the resources used in manufacturing and packaging as well as a reduction in the amount of fuel used for transport.

Although still in its infancy, since its launch in October last year, the scheme has reported some significant changes to operations, particularly around packaging. In certain models, it has helped reduce handset packaging volumes by 24%.

O2’s head of environmental sustainability, Gareth Rice, stressed the significance this relatively simple scheme has had on the environmental impact of its operations. “The knock on effect of this reduced packaging is having a tremendous impact in terms of how many handsets you get on a pallet, how many pallets you get in a truck and how many truckloads of pallets you get in an aircraft,” says Rice.

Rice also says that the number of customers making a sustainable choice on handsets since the schemes launch is around 50,000. But what of the handset itself? The rate, reduce and recycle strategy aims to change consumer behaviour and look at ways to increase handset recycling.

According to a report published by think-tank, Forum for the Future, earth calling…the environmental impacts of the mobile telecommunications industry, effective end-of-life management for both phones and network equipment is critical because “they contain precious and potentially toxic materials”.

Recovery and reuse of these materials prevents them entering and polluting the environment, and also reduces the amount of raw material extraction needed in the first place. It also stresses that effective management, in combination with good design at the manufacturing stage, can lead to significant reduction in environmental impact across the life cycle.

O2 is actively encouraging this through its strategy and recently announced that 300,000 handsets had been recycled. Rice says: “We are trying to drive change across the whole of the life cycle and our rationale is to achieve true sustainability within our organisation and our products but at the same time work with consumers to raise their awareness through initiatives like O2 Recycle. This is important because around 85% of the products that come through O2 Recycle will be refurbished and reused elsewhere”.

Recycling is a critical part of the industry as the majority of customer’s view sustainability as a low priority when choosing a phone. However, some organisations are looking at how to reduce the manufacturing of new devices by extending the life of existing models. Several design concepts have materialised recently, one of which is ‘Phonebloks’, an idea of a mobile phone being made up of detachable, replaceable ‘bloks’.

The ‘bloks’ are connected to a base panel which locks everything together into a solid phone and if a blok breaks or the phone becomes out of date the owner replaces the part or upgrades the software.

Although Rice is an advocate of the ‘lego phone’, as he describes it, he is not so confident that consumers are ready for this new model of phone.”The concept of this may take some time to establish itself in the market because currently the ambition of consumers is to have the latest, sleekest, thinnest, smallest phones on the planet and this may make it difficult to deliver the ‘Phoneblok’ concept in this environment,” says Rice.

However, Rice is convinced that these ideas to extend the life of mobile phone devices is necessary for the industry if it is to considerablly reduce its environmental impact.

Leigh Stringer edie energy and sustainability editor

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie