Designer Dave Hakkens made a social media splash last fall with Phonebloks, his concept for a phone with swappable parts. Modular phones would allow users to upgrade, repair, and customize parts of their phones. The overall aim is to reduce electronic waste by getting people to hold onto their phones longer. To bring such an idea into a competitive market, Hakkens needed a sophisticated partner. That's where Google comes in. The company now plans to release its first modular phone, developed under the name Project Ara, in 2015.


At first glance, a modular phone seems like a great option for reducing material use. But in the span of the phone's expected 5-6 year lifespan, it's reasonable to think that advances might emerge in energy harvesting or manufacturing techniques that could render it relatively inefficient. So a question remains whether the phone base will be able to adapt to such changes. Moreover, if one of the goals of the project is to reduce electronic waste, a system will need to be in place to collect and recycle or repurpose modules that are no longer wanted. Given the modules' tiny size, it's possible that the resources they contain won't be perceived as valuable enough to prioritize or make a collection and recycling system viable.

Of course, modularity isn't simply about extending the life of a product. It's also another form of mass customization. People can pick or choose what components they want. In the case of Ara, Google is banking on people's willingness to pay not only for their own preferred mix of apps, but for a customized mix of hardware modules that do everything from take pictures to take your pulse.

Interface's FLOR carpet tile is perhaps the most well known modular product on the market, and is a big part of the company's overall sustainable business strategy. If there's a problem, users can replace tiles individually, rather than replacing an entire floor's worth of carpet. The end result is less waste and an extended life for the overall floor covering. The Guardian recently portrayed a handful of other modular products, from shoes to an indoor aquaponics system, as inherently sustainable. However, it's not clear that modularity is necessarily aligned with sustainability. Manufacturers and entrepreneurs working on modular products intended to be "sustainable" should consider their end goals relative to things like initial resource inputs, waste, lifecycle costs, and recoverability to ensure that modular is indeed doing better with less.