How Samsung’s new line of mobile phones aims to stop the world from ‘choking on plastic’
Whether or not you believe in the paranormal, you should be frightened of ghost nets.
The haunting term refers to the glut of plastic fishing gear that gets abandoned each year in the world’s seas—up to 1 million tons of it annually, according to the World Wildlife Fund. These nets and other apparatus are more than just an eyesore: They’re a killer. All manner of fish, sea birds, and turtles get caught up in the netting and die, putting threatened species at risk and robbing the planet of vital fish stocks. “Because of this, ghost gear has been coined as the most deadly form of marine plastic debris, damaging vital ocean habitats, aquatic life, and livelihoods,” WWF has warned.
On a field trip in India last year, Pranveer Singh Rathore got an up-close look at the problem. The materials-science engineer was on the coast, north of Goa, when he and colleagues saw a giant nylon-plastic fishing net drifting in the ocean. “We drove past it, and we pulled it out,” Rathore, a materials R&D manager at Samsung, told Fortune. “A lot of marine animals were stuck in that [net]. For the most part, they were all dead. That actually shook me.”
Not long after that trip, Rathore and his team set themselves the task of giving new life to the deadly nets. Last month, Samsung unveiled a new line of Galaxy products—the S22 smartphone, the Book2 Pro laptop, and Tab 8 tablet—made in part from recycled plastic fishing nets. The company estimates that this year alone it can, with the help of its partners, repurpose more than 50 tons of ocean-bound plastic and use the material to fashion into the key components that will go into its smartphones, tablets, and computers, thus taking a bite out of the global ghost gear problem.
“Our planet is choking on plastic”
Samsung isn’t alone. A number of companies are trying to beef up their circular supply chains by developing innovative ways to upcycle some portion of the 300 million metric tons of plastic waste—as the United Nations Environment Programme says, “Our planet is choking on plastic”—we chuck out each year. HP, for example, repurposes discarded ocean plastics to make the components that go into 50 of its products, from laptops to computer monitors.
It’s no small task to give discarded fishing nets a second act. The nets are typically made of a substance called polyamides—commonly known as nylon. This material tends to dramatically degrade the longer it sits in the ocean water and is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. “This makes it nearly impossible to use discarded and abandoned fishing nets directly, as collected from the ocean and the neighboring coastal areas,” Rathore explains.
A high-performance smartphone, tablet, or PC has to be waterproof, dustproof, and able to withstand harsh weather conditions, he adds. The basic polyamides found in the fishing nets are of a quality that too often falls far short of that level of durability.
To crack that design problem, Samsung last summer teamed with two partners. It called on the Dutch conglomerate Royal DSM, a big corporate champion of cleaning up the world’s waterways, to collect the discarded fishing nets and transform them into tiny polyamide resin pellets, which can be molded into a variety of shapes. For the next step, it enlisted the help of the Korean materials specialist, Hanwha Compound, to fortify that upcycled material so that it meets Samsung’s standards for physical toughness and thermal durability.
The end result: The partners hit upon an eco-friendly and high-performance plastic material that’s being used to build the component parts for its latest line of smartphones, tablets, and PCs. For example, two parts of the Galaxy S22 mobile phone—the key bracket, a slim piece of plastic attached to the on/off button, and the inner cover to the nook where the phone’s S pen is stored—are made of these fishing-net-derived plastic material. That’s just 20% of the handset, but Samsung aims to use even more upcycled materials in future product lines.
“That’s the hope and ambition,” Rathore says. “We are working on the different [design] challenges that each device throws at us.”
The fishing nets project is part of Samsung’s larger “Galaxy for the Planet” initiative: By 2025 the consumer tech giant aims to use more recycled raw materials in production of its mobile devices, eliminate all plastic from its packaging, and achieve zero waste from its production facilities.
Rathore sees consumer electronics makers—by any measure, huge consumers of industrial plastics—as playing a big role in diverting plastic waste away from the world’s waterways. He also hopes the launch of the Galaxy S22 will raise awareness of the problem of ghost nets and the threat they pose to the world’s waterways. He says: “These are the two outcomes that I personally would love to see come from this project.”
Reader note: Each week, Fortune covers the world of innovation in Breakthrough. You can read previous Breakthrough columns here.
Check out Fortune’s Brainstorm Design Conference, taking place May 23–24 in Brooklyn. For more details and to apply to attend, click here.