A green chance for Samsung

Edwin Lau says the company could display corporate responsibility and win hearts by offering to carry out safe recycling worldwide for the millions of handsets to be recalled.

Samsung Electronics launched its Galaxy Note 7 smartphone on August 19. Just 53 days later, on October 11, it announced a worldwide production halt as more and more battery explosions were reported, and many airlines banned the phones on board. All Galaxy Note 7 models would be recalled, with customers given either a refund or a different model.

This incident raises three issues worthy of attention and follow-up:

First, how will Samsung ensure that such a large number of used and unsold phones (around 2.5 million) are recovered from individual customers and retailers? Absolute transparency is required of Samsung, and so it should make public the result of the recall in different cities from time to time.

Second, what is to happen to the recalled phones? Will Samsung take steps to ensure they are recycled in proper waste electrical and electronic equipment facilities to extract useful materials and deal safely with any harmful substances in the phones?

Countries with producer responsibility legislation require companies to handle end-of-life products in an eco-friendly way, to minimise adverse impact on the environment and public health. Electronic waste is different from normal household waste as it may contain metals and toxic materials that, if treated improperly, could contaminate groundwater, soil and the atmosphere. But what about countries which do not have such legislation?

Third, Hong Kong’s Product Eco-responsibility Ordinance covers eight types of electronic and electrical appliances, but mobile phones are not included.

So will our government request Samsung to provide a recovery and treatment plan for all the Note 7 phones recovered here? And will it review the plan to ensure no secondary pollution is created by the process?

In fact, Samsung could demonstrate its environmental commitment by announcing such a plan before our government makes the request.

There was a time when a watch, a phone, a camera or a car were considered durable goods. However, the tendency for manufacturers today to go for high turnover to gain profits means electronic products in particular have a relatively short lifespan, due either to product failure or frequent release of new models. As repairs can be costly, customers simply buy the newer model. This means a lot more resources are used and more waste generated.

Manufacturers need to strike a balance between profits and their corporate environmental responsibilities. The Galaxy Note 7 disaster can be turned into a positive for Samsung if it demonstrates real corporate responsibility by organising safe recycling worldwide for all the recalled handsets. This is the sort of approach which wins customers.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is executive director of The Green Earth.

27 October 2016 SCMP