Dirty watercooler stunt makes smartphones ‘better design’ message clear
Visitors to London Design Festival this week will experience a ‘watercooler moment’ with a difference, as Friends of the Earth, London Design Festival and Landor Associates collaborate for the first time to raise awareness about the charity’s Make It Better campaign for products made in less harmful ways.
In six key festival venues, watercooler installations filled with dirty brown water sit alongside functioning watercoolers, labelled with speech bubbles mimicking the familiar design of smartphone texts, which reveal how mining tin for smartphones in Indonesia is polluting water.
The thought-provoking design intervention aims to demonstrate the shocking impact of our much-loved devices and encourage a conversation about manufacturer responsibility to make products in better ways.
Friends of the Earth's investigation found evidence that smartphones made by all the major manufacturers contain tin – used as solder in electronic devices – that's contaminating water and wrecking lives in Bangka island, Indonesia. [Expert recommendations for reducing the impact of smartphone production available in notes to editors]
Friends of the Earth’s Head of Campaigns Andrew Pendleton said:
“People may be surprised to learn that uncontaminated water we take for granted can be hard to find on Indonesia’s Bangka island, due to pollution from tin mining for our smartphones.
“Millions of us love our phones – our Make It Better campaign is calling for companies to create smarter designs and production methods so we can love the way they’re made too.
“We want companies to understand their impact on people and our natural world throughout the supply chain, then use this to design more efficient products – from longer-lasting gadgets that are easier to repair to ensuring valuable materials can be reused or recycled.”
Max Fraser, Deputy Director of London Design Festival, said:
“All too often we praise new products but seldom give any consideration to the environmental and social impact on the far-flung places where materials are mined.
“Furthermore, we don't question how they are procured, how products are made, the conditions and pay for workers or the long-term sustainability.
“This is a complex issue and the London Design Festival is honoured to support Friends of the Earth in its Make It Better campaign to raise awareness of it.”
Where to have a ‘watercooler moment’
- Tent London (Truman Brewery, Brick Lane)
- 100% Design (Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre)
- Decorex (Kensington Palace)
- Global Design Forum (Southbank centre)
- Fritz Hansen furniture showroom (13-14 Margaret Street, W1W 8RN)
- Designersblock exhibition (Southbank centre)
Where to join the debate
Get involved on Twitter #smarterphones. Find out more about the Make It Better campaign and share smart design ideas at these free open sessions:
- Design For Good - organised by The Living Furniture Project: Monday 16 September, 5.30-10pm, 22-26 Farringdon Lane EC1R 3AJ.
- Make It Better: designing products that don’t cost the Earth - panel debate chaired by design writer Lynda Relph-Knight, with Sophie Thomas of RSA Great Recovery and Ugo Vallauri of Restart Project. V&A Musuem, Hochhauser auditorium, Wednesday 18 September, 4-5pm.
- Smarterphones: the next generation – Friends of the Earth lead an Eco Hub debate at 100% Design, Earl’s Court, Saturday 21 September, 2.15-2.45pm.
Friends of the Earth Executive Director Andy Atkins is judging prototypes of products that would help us face population and climate challenges at the Royal College of Art SustainRCA exhibition during London Design festival (19 September, open till 10 October).
Notes to editors
 High-res images of the watercooler and the devastation caused by tin mining on Bangka island are available from the press office.
 5 steps to smarter phones from Tim Cooper, Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption at Nottingham Trent University.
- Energy-saving batteries – the organic radical battery (ORB) uses no heavy metals that can be harmful to humans, and charges in just 30 seconds.
- Change contract length – a UK mobile phone’s typical lifetime is just 18 months. Instead of offering contracts that encourage us to keep upgrading when our phones are still usable, the industry could offer customers savings if we take on longer contracts, or explore options like fixing or leasing, helping phones live longer. One Swiss study concluded that extending service life from one to four years would decrease environmental impacts by about 40%.
- Design for disassembly and repair - many phones are deliberately glued shut or have special screws that stop users from opening them. Designing phones so they are easier to take apart, to repair or replace parts would make a big difference. And it would make it more cost-effective to extract and reuse components and metals. The value of precious metals in 85 million discarded phones exceeds £150 million.
- Choose greener materials – such as polylactic acid plastic (PLA), which is made entirely from corn starch or glucose and is renewable and biodegradable; recycled plastic, and natural materials like bamboo. Or use fewer materials – today’s more powerful iMac is designed with 50% less material and generates 50% fewer emissions than the first-generation model.
- Cut down on packaging and accessories – are all those manuals, chargers and packaging really needed? 70% of buyers already have compatible chargers for the 30 million new phones sold annually. HTC, Nokia and Sony now sell some models with just USB leads instead of unnecessary chargers, as part of O2’s Chargers out of the Box campaign.
 Friends of the Earth's investigation found evidence that phones made by all the major manufacturers contain tin that's polluting water and destroying tropical forests in Bangka island, Indonesia. Child labour and fatal accidents are common in the dangerous unregulated mining sector. Police figures show that in 2011 an average of one miner a week died in an accident.
Following pressure from Friends of the Earth supporters, Apple, Samsung, Nokia, Sony, Blackberry, Motorola and LG Electronics have all publicly committed to urgent action to tackle the problems in Indonesia.
 Key facts on tin in electronics:
• Almost half of all mined tin is turned into solder for the electronics industry.
• Electronic gadgets contain tin-rich solder, an alloy of around 95% tin mixed with one or two other metals, to hold together resistors, transistors and circuit boards.
• A typical mobile phone contains around 2g of tin-rich solder; the average tablet/iPad weighs 650g and contains 1-3g of tin.
 Thousands of people have joined Friends of the Earth's Make It Better campaign, launched in November 2012, asking phone companies to say if they use environmentally harmful tin in their products. To help end problems in production, we're calling for new laws requiring large companies operating in Europe to report on their full human and environmental impacts. The campaign is also celebrating positive steps companies are taking towards more planet-friendly production and how innovative design can help.
If you're a journalist looking for press information please contact the Friends of the Earth media team on 020 7566 1649.