Modular electronic products and waste

Via Reid Lifset, Research Scientist, Resident Fellow in Industrial Ecology, Yale University


Project ARA Sprial 2 Prototype, iamge by  Marizio Pesce

For those interested in issues of product durability, reuse and e-waste,  you might want to know that Google suspended Project ARA, its effort to create a modular cell phone (see for a news story).  For a thoughtful discussion of the challenges of upgradability in consumer electronics, take a look at this article. 

Agrawal, V. V., A. Atasu, and S. Ülkü. 2015. Modular upgradability in consumer electronics: Economic and environmental implicationsJournal of Industrial Ecology


Modularly upgradable product designs have been advocated to offer environmental and economic advantages; however, they are not commonly used in the consumer electronics industry. In this article, we investigate the economic and environmental benefits and challenges of modular upgradability for consumer electronics. From an economic point of view, we posit that the limited adoption of modular upgradability in consumer electronics is owing to various demand-, technology-, and competition-related issues. From an environmental point of view, we posit that modularly upgradable product designs may not necessarily lead to superior environmental outcomes. To reach meaningful conclusions regarding the environmental benefits of modular upgradability, one needs to understand how product architecture affects demand, production, and consumption patterns, which arise from endogenous consumer and manufacturer choices. It is also important to take into account that modular upgradability may have potentially differentiated effects in the production, consumption, and postuse phases of the lifecycle.


Also see a new book:

Laser, Stefan (2016), A Phone Worth Keeping for the Next 6 Billion? Exploring the Creation of a Modular Smartphone Made by Google, in: Christiane Lewe, Tim Orthold, Nicolas Oxen (Ed.): Müll. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf das Übrig-Gebliebene [Waste. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Remaining], transcript, pp. 201-226.

Smartphones illustrate the power of electronic devices. They are also prime examples of electronic waste, which is a growing global public concern. So far, however, there has been little discussion about the reorganization of the manufacturing of electronics to tackle the issue. This paper explores a vision of a modular smartphone—that is, a smartphone that is made of easily-swappable parts—that embraces this endeavor. The vision of this smartphone was made popular by the social movement of »Phonebloks« and Google began developing a prototype of such a phone under the umbrella of »Project Ara«; with this gadget, Google may be establishing a new standard. Both projects are accompanied by vivid »passionate interests« (Gabriel Tarde) originating from Internet discourses. In this paper, the evolution of this phone and its emerging economy is explored with an ethnographic approach, deploying methods of Actor-Network Theory. This product-to-be, it is finally argued, is built to cast off things regularly. This highlights a peculiar mode of wasting that already has had a powerful impact on the actors involved (including the researcher).