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Green is in for wireless companies

Wireless operators and handset makers are all going green, but Sprint Nextel and Samsung say they want to lead pack with the new Reclaim handset.

NEW YORK--Green is the new black in wireless as companies like Sprint Nextel and Samsung announce new products and programs geared toward environmental sustainability.

Samsung Reclaim Sprint Nextel

At a press event Thursday at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum here, the companies announced a new eco-friendly device called the Reclaim and an overall strategy to green the wireless market.

The news comes as consumers are increasingly buying products and services based on environmental sustainability. From energy-saving light bulbs to hybrid cars and now environmentally-friendly cell phones, green is all the rage.

For Sprint, which has been plagued by a poor customer service reputation for the past couple of years, the move toward becoming more green is seen as a way to help revive its brand as a company that is socially conscious and environmentally aware.

"There are many customers who care very much about the environment," said David Owens, Sprint's director of customer acquisitions. "These are customers who buy products and services from companies they feel are good companies with good sustainable products. So we think that people will come to Sprint because of that. And then we hope the other improvements we've made in our network reliability, device line-up, and customer service will keep them with us."

"We really are a different company than we were 18 months ago, but there's been a bit of a perception gap between," he added. "And we're trying to change that."

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 100 million cell phones are tossed every year in the United States alone. These devices have the potential to leak mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other substances into water streams if they're thrown in the trash and end up in city landfills.

All the major wireless operators have had a recycling program for years. Verizon Wireless has a program that allows people to take their old cell phones and donate them to HopeLine, a resource for victims of domestic abuse, or other charities. AT&T has a recycling program that offers refurbished phones to soldiers serving in the military. AT&T has also announced a major commitment to using alternative-fuel vehicles.

But now Sprint says it wants to be a leader on the environment. It announced Thursday that it plans by 2017 to be recycling or reclaiming 90 percent of its devices that will be in the market. Sprint's collection rate today is about 35 percent, which is higher than the industry average.

The company has also committed itself to reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent by 2017 and to also use renewable energy for about 10 percent of its energy consumption by that time as well. Currently, about 90 percent of the power used at the company's headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas comes from renewable energy sources like wind.

Also as part of this agenda to make the earth a better place, the company has adopted a set of minimum environmental standards for devices it sells for its network.

Owens said the Samsung Reclaim, the device announced Thursday, is the first handset to exceed these requirements and the first to be highlighted as part of Sprint's "green" agenda. But he said it will not be the last. In fact, all devices sold by Sprint going forward will meet the new requirements and the company plans to sell other devices from other manufacturers that exceed the guidelines starting next year, he said.

"If this was an announcement about a single device that is eco-friendly, then it wouldn't really be that interesting," he said. "What we are really saying with this device is that it's just the beginning."

One of the biggest requirements for Sprint's new environmentally friendly devices is recyclability. The Samsung Reclaim does a very good job of hitting this mark, Owens said. The device itself is 80 percent recyclable. About 40 percent of the device's outer casing is made using an eco-friendly bioplastic, which is derived from corn. The device is also free of many harmful components such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), phthalates, and almost all brominated flame retardants (BFR).

The Reclaim also comes with an energy-efficient charger that is Energy Star rated and consumes 12 times less power than Energy Star standards for standby power consumption. And it's equipped with an alert light that lets users know when the phone is fully charged.

"If this was an announcement about a single device that is eco-friendly, then it wouldn't really be that interesting...What we are really saying with this device is that it's just the beginning."
--David Owens, Sprint's director of customer acquisitions

Additionally, the device packaging is green. The box and phone tray are made from recycled material. Sprint has also done away with a bulky user manual and instead is offering a link to a full user manual online. And a soy-based print was used for any printed material that does come with the phone and for the ink used to label the box. While reducing the bulk of the packaging is good by itself, Sprint executives say that it also helps cut down on shipping costs, which ultimately helps reduce the green house gas emissions.

Samsung isn't the only cell phone manufactures with environmentally friendly products. Motorola's W233 Renew handset is made of a plastic casing from recycled water bottles. It's being sold by T-Mobile USA. And in June, Sony Ericsson announced two new eco-friendly phones. Nokia has also shown off prototypes of eco-friendly devices.

What makes the Samsung Reclaim somewhat unique is that customers buying it won't have to sacrifice features to be green. And they won't have to pay an arm and a leg to buy a phone that is supposedly less harmful to the environment.

Some of the advanced features included on the phone are 3G wireless network access, GPS and location-based services, access to corporate and Web-based e-mail, and one-click access to Web sites like Facebook and Twitter. These features and the slide out QWERTY keypad make it a good crossover device for consumers who may not need the power of a smartphone but want some of the basic features available via a smarpthone. And at $50 with a two-year contract, the Reclaim is priced right for the average consumer.

By contrast, Motorola's Renew is a basic bare-bones cell phone with no extra bells and whistles. This fact alone limits the number of customers interested in the device since users will have to sacrifice features that are increasingly becoming commonplace in other popular phones on the market.

"Dan (Hesse, Sprint's CEO) wanted to make sure that this device was priced for the masses," Owens said. "It wouldn't have much impact on the market if it didn't offer the features customers want or if it was priced too high."

Like Sprint, Samsung also sees itself as a leader in the green wireless movement. The company on Thursday said it plans to spend $4.3 billion over the next four years on environmental management to ensure that its products and its business practices including manufacturing are less harmful to the environment. As part of this effort, the company has pledged that 100 percent of its devices manufactured by 2013 will exceed eco-friendly standards set by environmental groups.

"Samsung has had a strategy to improve the environmental impact of our products and our company for more than 20 years," said Omar Khan, senior vice president of strategy and product management for Samsung Mobile. "So this is not a new focus for us."

Khan said the company has already done an extensive amount of research to ensure that the materials and processes the company uses to create more sustainable products are also not harmful to the environment. And he said that manufacturing the Reclaim, which uses bioplastics, reduces the carbon footprint for manufacturing devices by 40 percent compared to manufacturing phones using traditional petroleum plastics.

"It's very important for us to analyze the entire manufacturing and sustainability of a product to ensure that the process in general is healthier for the environment than the traditional way of doing things," he said.