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To save the planet, phone makers need to bring back removable batteries

LG’s smartphone business has had an unremarkable few years. But when it announced its departure earlier this month, there was one phone I thought about and wished had succeeded: The ambitious LG G5.

Launched in 2015, the LG G5 was one of the last few phones to ship with a battery that people could easily detach and replace. Its modular design stood out in an industry that was actively turning phones into black boxes. I hoped, at the time, that the G5 could save the day.

LG G5 Review
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

I was wrong — by a long shot. Neither LG nor swappable battery packs survived.

But what if removable batteries hadn’t gone extinct? The world probably would have been a bit greener.

The smartphone spike

Smartphones are heating up the planet quicker than any other electronic appliance. Their environmental figures are astonishing, and since 2010, their climate footprint has only become worse. Studies estimate greenhouse gas emissions from smartphones will proliferate by an unprecedented 730% every year.

Over the past few years, manufacturers have stepped forward to cut back on smartphones’ role in accelerating climate change by, for instance, killing the in-box adapter and reusing metals from recycled devices. However, none of these actions could possibly ever match the positive impact swappable batteries could have had on the planet.

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Production and manufacturing are responsible for nearly 80% of a smartphone’s lifetime carbon emissions. This means buying a new phone consumes as much energy as operating one for about a decade. The true magnitude of these figures becomes apparent when you factor in the hundreds of millions of new smartphones companies sell every year.

On average, people upgrade to a new phone every two or three years — but expanding that cycle by just a year has the potential to reduce smartphone-related emissions by as much as 30%.

“Disposable electronics are not compatible with a healthy planet.”

As per Nathan Proctor, the director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s campaign for the “right to repair,” if Americans used their phones a year longer, it would be the equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road annually. In the case of Europe, that figure rises to 2 million cars each year.

Since more than a quarter of buyers upgrade to a new phone because their existing one’s battery has worn out, removable batteries could have theoretically prevented carbon emissions comparable to nearly a million cars in just the U.S. and Europe. That’s assuming the presence of a removable battery deters people from holding on to their phones for an extra year. The environmental benefits of removable batteries would have grown exponentially for enabling even longer phone lifetimes.

A European Union-commissioned study also revealed that such a move could save consumers over 20 billion euros ($24.2 billion) by 2030.

Old iphone batteries
Parilov / Shutterstock

“Disposable electronics are not compatible with a healthy planet. It’s completely unsustainable,” added Proctor, “and as trends accelerate, it is getting worse. The best way forward is to use the products we’ve already built as long as we can.”

But is it possible for removable batteries to return now?

Bringing back the dead

Unfortunately, phone companies killed swappable batteries for a reason. Gluing down a smartphone to the very last screw makes it easier for manufacturers to design a slimmer and more seamless exterior. In doing so, they also gain the ability to waterproof their phones. But there was an ulterior nonpublic motive that drove removable batteries into extinction.

Taking away the freedom to swap out the battery unlocks several new revenue channels for phone makers, like charging buyers for battery repairs. But most importantly, it all fits into a wider concept often referred to as “planned obsolescence.” At the end of the day, manufacturers want you to buy a new phone more often, and perks such as removable batteries and expandable storage are not aligned with that direction. Apple, for instance, has even gone so far as lobbying against right-to-repair laws.

android interior battery
Tyler Lastovich/Pexels

Ketan Joshi, a climate and clean tech author, says companies like Apple and Samsung need to take realistic climate-first measures instead of simply talking about sustainability.

“I see a lot of companies like Apple and Samsung promising big things on climate but never talking about extending the lifespan of their products or allowing battery replacements,” Joshi told Digital Trends. “It’s one thing for them to buy renewable energy for their data centers, but they need to understand the lifespan impacts of their products better and be held to account for designing environmentally damaging products.”

A climate change promise from Apple

But experts believe that if companies truly wanted to, they probably would have figured out how to offer removable batteries or batteries that can be swapped with basic repair tools in modern smartphones. Besides, a few startups are already doing it.

Netherlands-based Fairphone’s latest smartphone comes equipped with all the trappings you’d expect in an easy-to-repair design. Owners have the option to purchase spare parts right from Fairphone’s store and replace components like the battery at home. Similarly, Teracube’s smartphones promote a sustainable experience with a four-year warranty and a removable battery.

Heck, even Samsung sells a phone with a removable battery called the XCover Pro. The South Korea-based manufacturer also managed to bundle it all in a water-proof, rugged body.

samsung galaxy xcover pro

In addition to longer phone cycles, modular attributes like a removable battery have one other environment-friendly upside: They can be recycled more efficiently. In its research, Fairphone found that a modular design allows for greater and wider recovery of materials from phones than traditional methods.

Teracube’s founder and CEO, Sharad Mittal, also adds that DIY-capable phones are easier to repair. “In terms of design, our main criteria was making it ultra-easy for the users to replace the battery when the time comes so that an otherwise usable phone will not be put aside,” Mittal said in an emailed response to Digital Trends. “Making the phone DIY repairable also makes our own internal repairs easy — so it’s kind of a win-win.”

Kees Baldé, senior programme officer at the Sustainable Cycles Programme at the United Nations University, agrees that the potential of removable batteries is huge and sees official legislation that mandates repairable phones as the only effective path forward.

Europe is already said to be drafting a law that could force phone makers to include easily repairable batteries. Mauro Anastasio of the European Environmental Bureau, a network of global environmental organizations, hopes the EU can be a leader on this front and its climate-friendly legislation can impel the rest of the countries to follow suit.

“There’s a long way ahead, but we can’t afford to leave this transition in the hands of the industry and their voluntary agreements,” Anastasio added. “We need a regulatory framework to hold manufacturers to account and ensure systemic change.”

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Shubham Agarwal
Shubham Agarwal is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad, India. His work has previously appeared in Firstpost…
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