Start-Ups

How an upcycled battery could keep smartphones from destroying the planet

Better Re is a crowdfunded reusable smartphone battery made by a team in Korea that could help solve the massive global problem of e-waste.

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Better Re is an upcycled smartphone battery charger.
Image: Better Re

On average, we replace our smartphones every two years. Most of the time, there's still quite a bit of juice left in the batteries — we just want the latest, greatest model. We recycle them — or worse, throw them in the trash — without thinking twice about the possibility that the battery may be useful for something else.

The world produced 46 million tons of electronic waste (or e-waste) in 2014 — that's about 13 pounds per person. According to the United Nation University's recent report, the United States generated 7.8 million tons of e-waste in 2014, which was more than any other country in the world. That's about 17% of the global total. And all that e-waste is creating toxic wastelands in developing countries around the world.

Smartphones are a huge contributor to this massive, global problem. Lithium-ion batteries in phones are toxic, and contaminate the water and land when they're discarded improperly. In the event we do keep our old phones a while, the battery doesn't charge as well. We're using our smartphones more often, and they drain faster. So we purchase separate, mobile battery packs, which ends up just adding to the waste pile.

These are the reasons for Better Re, an upcycled smartphone battery pack that has an infinite lifespan and expandable capacity with USB ports to charge your tablet or other device. As long as it's a removable battery, it can fit into Better Re and serve as an external power source for your phone.

The Kickstarter for Better Re ended on June 9, and was successfully funded by almost 800 backers in more than 40 countries, raising almost $70,000 — far over their goal, and is now open for pre-orders on Kickstarter and the company's website.

"For a sustainable society and environment, it is crucial to reuse tons of batteries being discarded and neglected every year," said Kiyong Shin, CEO and founder of Enlighten, which makes the pack. "We aim to solve this environmental issue with Better Re."

This energy solution was created by Shin and his team in South Korea. While he was in undergraduate school, Shin studied design engineering and learned the process of product development, and then did a graduate school program for social innovation to learn the broader picture of the entrepreneurial system.

Shin set up a startup team called W with a group of fellow graduate students. They were studying international environmental issues like global warming and air pollution at the time, and learned how kerosene lamps used in energy-poor areas caused numerous social issues. So, they invented a solar lamp. Determined to move the business forward, Shin dropped out of school and established Enlighten, aimed to create sustainable energy solutions in innovative ways.

After the solar lamp, the team wanted to solve a problem in energy-abundant parts of the world. They realized there was a particular moment in time when people felt vulnerable to energy shortage — when their smartphone ran out of battery power.

"As we went through profound research about this issue, we learned that millions of smartphone batteries that are still usable were being discarded or neglected, ending up in trash cans or desk drawers," he said. "We were lacking batteries, but ironically, batteries were being wasted."

Lithium-ion cell batteries are still some of the best quality, which is why they're used in smartphones. Shin said that they retain 80% efficiency even after two years of usage, when most people throw them out. But if there's no external damage, they're still usable.

And, producing lithium-ion batteries causes damage to the environment, from the mining to manufacturing processes. Currently, most batteries are collected with old smartphones to be material-recycled for the recovery of cobalt.

"This is depreciating the value of batteries that can still be used; in other words, wasting useful resources," Shin said.

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Image: Better Re

"Usually, external batteries' capacity and mobility are regarded as incompatible," Shin said. "With Better Re, users can smarten up their lives by carrying only the basic pack in daily lives and adding the expansion packs when staying out for a long time."

Though there were several crowdfunding platforms in Korea, Shin wanted to make sure Better Re was marketed globally, so he chose Kickstarter. Better Re raised more than $30,000 on the first day and reached the goal before the end of the campaign. Originally, it was designed as a premium product, but Shin said even backers told him that the highest barrier was the price, so he is now developing a model made from eco-friendly plastic that's less than half the current price — the basic pack is $49, and the expansion pack is $20.

"What surprised me the most is that there are a lot people who offer active support just for the simple reason that I am doing a good thing...Through this give-and-take process, my team and I [were] able to build a relationship of trust with lots of people and create continuous partnerships," Shin said.

Since the campaign is over, Shin wants to start a battery rental business, allowing people to rent used battery packs if and when they need them, so they would only have to visit a charging station once in a while. He said he expects that to be a solution better for developing countries, especially as smartphone use catches on in places that were once off-the-grid. And there's huge potential there. For example, in the past few years, mobile phones have completely transformed how people in Africa communicate, allowing them to leap into the digital world. According to Pew Research, across seven countries surveyed, about two-thirds of participants said they own a cell phone.

"From now on, as Enlighten's mission and vision [is to] develop the low-price model of Better Re to distribute to developing countries as well as developed countries," Shin said.

Also see:

10 common misconceptions about mobile device batteries

About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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