Report: Mobile industry greenlights eco-friendliness

Streamlining device packaging translates to reduced costs for companies and less waste for landfills.

As the nation's blue mood increasingly darkens and the economy goes farther into the red, the environmentally sensitive green movement continues to gain momentum within the wireless space. Going green, it seems, is a smart move from both public relations and a more importantly, of course, cost savings perspectives, starting with how those mobile phones are packaged and shipped.

"We managed to cut the size of the packaging that we use for our large volume devices by about 54 percent. In terms of the volumes of devices that Nokia ships, using that packaging over the last two years has enabled us to reduce the amount of paper-based materials by 100,000 tons," said Susan Smith, a Nokia spokesperson.

Even more, that translates into reduced shipping costs. Nokia, she said, used 12,000 fewer trucks to distribute its new environmentally smart packaged products and that means a savings of $593 million.

Optimized packaging is a cost saver which, in turn, is eco-friendly, said Andrea Bradshaw, executive vice president of Brightstar, a distribution management and supply chain firm that works across multiple disciplines from carriers to vendor and retailers.

"We can optimize the packaging in wireless products too... reduce overall shipping and weight and cost to transport which ultimately reduces the cost of fuel and carbon emissions and at the same time reduce the overall cost of packaging, enhancing everyone's bottom line," Bradshaw said.

The bottom line is, as always, the dividing point between what works and what doesn't. If something's not good for business it's tough to justify doing it. Environmental friendliness, it turns out, is good for business so everybody's doing it.

"There are all kinds of things you can do to reduce, re-use and recycle. It's something of an initiative here at Brightpoint," said Alicia Thomas, Brightpoint's vice president of North American marketing.

Brightpoint, she said, developed its own environmental initiative, Bright Green, to work with internal processes. The initiative worked so well its spread to the customer space helping wireless carriers "to become more efficient overall in the way we manage their particular business" from a logistics and distribution standpoint, she said. This includes the entire packaging process going even beyond the materials. "There's energy in the way stuff is put together and that's another form of conservation and certainly a cost-saving initiative," she said.

There's also energy in the way stuff is taken apart and re-used rather than dumped in the local landfill. Sprint, for instance, is committed to recycling 90 percent of all wireless devices by 2017. "When we get a device back it's always better to re-use than recycle," said Sprint spokesman Alex Hahn. The first option then, is to take back a phone and repurpose it.

About 66 percent of the phones Sprint takes in are sent back into the field but "some phones have just reached the end of their lives and need to be recycled so they are broken down and the components that can be recycled are extracted, separated out and recycled," Hahn said.

There are a lot more of those components every day, said Smith, at least when it comes to Nokia phones. "Today up to about 80 percent of any Nokia device can be recycled because of the materials that have been placed in that device," she said. "The other 20 percent tends to be largely plastics that can be burned within the recycling process so you're actually minimizing the amount of waste and maximizing the amount of device that can be recycled."

Green is such an important part of wireless these days that it's a large portion of what Walter Berger, executive vice president/CFO of Leap Wireless, said will be part of "two very large strategic undertakings" this year.

"One is going to be a relook at a whole inventory supply chain process and how we more efficiently locate the right inventory at the right store or distribution point at the right time," Berger said during a presentation to the Deutsche Bank Securities Media and Telecommunications Conference. "The second initiative... is going through a very comprehensive diagnostics of the whole cost make-up for everyone."

That evaluation will no doubt extend into the retail space where Leap sells its Cricket prepaid wireless service. "It's as simple as trying to get away from giving customers plastic bags when they walk out of the stores with the phone... towards either no sacks, just the box the phone comes in or a paper sack, something that's more renewable," said Greg Lund, a Leap spokesman.

It could also extend to how much the carrier thinks the customer needs in every package. For instance, Lund said, it may not be necessary to include reams of paper for instructions that can be accessed via the Web, so reams of paper might be saved just by going electronic. "We're doing a full review of packaging," he said. "We can go a long way toward using less material."

Nokia has yet another suggestion: let customers choose whether they need yet another phone charger or can use one they've already acquired. "If we're not including the charger, particularly somewhere like the U.K. where it's three-pronged and quite bulky, we're able to reduce the size of the packaging even further," Smith said.

Eco friendliness is a two-way street being traversed by carriers, vendors and distributors and even the customers who walk out of stores with less material for disposal or recycling. "Ultimately many of the packaging designs are a collaborative effort," said Brightstar's Bradshaw. "The retailers work with the operators and we work with them as well. When we're working on optimizing the packaging solutions we're working hand-in-hand with the retailer but always cognizant of protecting the operator brand or the OEM brand." Click here to see more photos of the recycling process...