Interactive bugs put the spotlight on e-waste

12th August, 2014 by tess riley

Robot butterflies built from discarded smartphone components are on display at the 02 arena, as part of 02's campaign to raise awareness about e-waste.

Old mobile phones. They may not be the obvious material for designers building model butterflies, but these are no ordinary butterflies: they are interactive, digital ones purposefully built out of discarded smartphone components as part of a project to encourage more people to recycle old devices.

Commissioned by O2 Recycle, these robotic creations were unveiled at London’s Natural History Museum ahead of World Environment Day in early June, and will be on display at The O2 arena over the summer. Advanced coding algorithms incorporated into the butterflies mean that each ‘creature’ responds in a unique way every time it interacts with a person. Their wings, for example, display a constantly evolving bespoke pattern across the handset screens from which they are built. Extendable antennae and laser eyes also feature in their make-up, representing different species.

The World Bank estimates that approximately three-quarters of the global population now has at least one mobile phone – gadgets facilitating everything from microhealth payments in Kenya to earthquake early warning systems in Japan. But frequent phone discards are a massive problem: search for ‘electronic waste’ in Google Images for perturbing pictures of mobile phone mountains and children dismantling gadgets containing hazardous chemicals. The scale of e-waste is unknown – something the United Nations is addressing by mapping comparable, country-level data as part of its StEP initiative. Last year, a study by Telefonica UK – better known through its O2 brand – estimated that there are 70 million unused mobile handsets in the UK, for example, and an additional 30 million new phones sold annually.

Aware of its role as a key player in the telecommunications world, O2 is looking for ways to influence consumer behaviour to reduce waste. In 2010, it launched the first scheme in the UK to rate handsets out of five according to their environmental impact, how they help people lead more sustainable lives and the ethical performance of the manufacturer. Now, it’s moving from the choice of handset to how the consumer uses it, and what happens when they no longer want it. The digital butterflies are part of O2’s up-cycling campaign to raise awareness of O2 Recycle, a project designed to minimise e-waste.

“Many people underestimate the importance of recycling e-waste”, says Dr Gareth Rice, Head of Environment at O2. “Unwanted devices often end up languishing in drawers or, worse, are thrown in the bin and end up in landfill sites where they can cause huge environmental problems. We want to encourage more people to recycle their old technology through O2 Recycle. In creating these unique butterflies, we’re seeking to highlight how new life can be born out of old technology.”

O2 Recycle, part of the O2 Think Big environment initiative, offers cash payments of up to £260 for unwanted gadgets to both O2 and non-O2 customers. To date, the project has recycled over one million devices and given a total of £77 million to customers in return for items such as mobile phones, tablets, MP3 players, digital cameras and SatNavs. It has invested a proportion of the profits into the Think Big youth fund, helping to support over 5,000 community projects across the country.

But what’s in it for O2? According to Aaron Hay, Senior Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future, the business opportunity has never been greater: “Most tech companies don’t have a full handle on the sheer magnitude of the e-waste problem and its negative social impacts – not to mention the value of the metals being abandoned by leaving disposal choices up to consumers. There’s also real evidence to show that consumers with limited budgets are starting to tire of the endless treadmill of newest, brightest smartphones, instead looking to the secondary market for lightly-used, highly-trusted alternative kit. There’s clearly a business opportunity here, and O2 is tapping into that in a way that prioritises customers – by offering several financial incentives to recycle almost any phone from any customer, O2 or not.”

Critics might argue that O2 could have put their time, money and upcycled phones to better use. But Chris Cairns, Creative Director at the design agency behind the butterflies, isthis.gd, argues that there’s a way to go before the real value and potential of e-waste is widely recognised:

“We wanted to give the ‘old and forgotten’ a new lease of life, and showcase the fact that even the discarded can emerge as something new and beautiful. This is what upcycling and O2 Recycle is all about.”

Telefónica is a Forum for the Future Partner.

Photo credit: Telefónica

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