Sustainability is more than recycling fishing nets

Android figures
(Image credit: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

Sustainability isn't a new idea, but it has become a major talking point for companies that make tech products. Samsung, one of the biggest manufacturers of consumer goods in the world, once again proved this during its 2022 Galaxy Unpacked event.

This is one of those good things we all like to see. I know I am more inclined to spend my money with a company that tries to conserve natural resources and cut back on tossing more waste into the landfill. I'm sure I'm not the only one, either.

I definitely want to praise Samsung for being more eco-friendly than it has been in the past, but I also want more. Maybe I want more because Samsung isn't telling us the whole story about the efforts it has made in being more sustainable. Or maybe Samsung knows that it just isn't doing enough.

Recycling is smart business

Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Image credit: BBC)

Recycling old fishing nets and cardboard is smart for plenty of reasons. One of the most important reasons, if you're an industry giant, is cost savings. Plastic net material melted into pellets, and then used to make phone parts, is cheaper than synthesizing new plastic. So long as the manufacturing process has been refined to produce quality parts using sub-standard source materials. Ditto for turning old boxes into new boxes.

Making boxes smaller by omitting things like chargers also means less cardboard makes its way into the landfill from people who can't be bothered to recycle. It also means that Samsung saves a ton of money on shipping because more products fit into the shipping container.

I'm not saying that money is the only reason companies like Samsung are doing it. I want to believe that the people in charge actually give a damn about the environmental impact so I am going to believe it until something comes along that proves otherwise. But I can't help but be a little skeptical.

Using dirty old materials to make shiny new things is not easy, but it is necessary.

There are plenty of other parts that are undoubtedly built with recycled materials inside a phone like the Galaxy Z Fold 4. Aluminum, cobalt, magnesium, steel, copper, and more are non-renewable resources with scrap in abundant supply. Samsung has to be using them just like every other company making phones is using them. 

Turning scrap metals into new parts isn't easy, but the alternative is even worse. These materials will run out eventually, and often times getting metals like cobalt out of the ground happens under hellish conditions. Other times, as is the case for lithium, it absolutely destroys the environment by draining groundwater supplies.

Samsung repurposing ocean plastics graphic

(Image credit: Samsung)

One initiative that Samsung has undertaken that is amazing — and worth more praise than I could ever give — is its reforestation projects. You probably don't know this, and I certainly didn't until I started looking for it, but Samsung has planted 2 million trees in Madagascar.

Yes, there is the whole carbon credit scam thing, so Samsung benefits from this. However, the simple fact is that small undeveloped nations are cutting down forests to turn into small developed nations at a record pace. Any company that spends money and time to help keep a place like Madagascar green is a company we all should want to do business with.

From 2002 to 2021, Madagascar lost 949kha of humid primary forest, making up 22% of its total tree cover loss

I worry that the reason Samsung isn't telling us what percentage of its parts are sourced from reclaimed metals is that even it knows the number isn't high enough. Look no further than Samsung's own sustainability portal to see that it spends time and money on environmentally friendly policies. 

Most of these are about recycling plastic and paper, or ways to trade in your old phone so you can buy a new phone — policies that benefit Samsung more than any of us. Very little space is used to tell us about Samsung reclaiming gold or cobalt from recycled phones.

I want Samsung to do better. If a small company like Fairphone can build a phone made with 100% ethically sourced or recycled materials, then an industrial titan like Samsung can do the same.

And if Samsung is doing it, I want to hear about it. 

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.