Decrypting eco-materials in electronics protection

Home D3O News > Decrypting eco-materials in electronics protection

‘Green’ phone, tablet, gaming, laptop and other electronic device cases are big business. Are they genuinely good for the planet and, just as important, are they good at protecting your device? To address this, D3O has developed the world's leading plant-based impact protection material: D3O® Bio

Environmental issues are high on the agenda for businesses, citizens and nations. Global initiatives, popular protest movements and what has been dubbed ‘the Blue Planet effect’ have all focused attention on issues including biodegradation, recycling and the depletion of natural resources. For many consumers, this level of awareness is becoming a significant factor in their purchasing decisions.

According to ‘The Elusive Green Consumer’, a report in the Harvard Business Review, the power of social influence is helping to drive pro-environmental behaviour. This trend extends to the choice of electronic device protection, as noted in ‘Mobile Phone Protective Cover Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product’: ‘A phone protective cover, generic or customized, is often a means of making a statement and reflects a person’s social and cultural preferences’. In future, proven sustainability credentials in device protection such as phone cases may become a ‘must have’.

There are currently estimated to be 3.5 billion smartphone users worldwide, with each user changing their phone every 20-27 months. In 2019 alone, more than 1.5 billion devices were sold, with a survey showing that 79% of users in the US added protection to their phone. Conventionally, most of this protection is manufactured from single-use plastic.

In response, many phone case manufacturers are developing ‘eco-friendly’ products. According to the prospectus for ‘Mobile Phone Cases and Covers Market’, a report published in November 2020, growth drivers and trends include ‘manufacturers turning to biodegradable materials’, ‘next-gen mobile phone cases and covers [that] are eco-friendly and entirely compostable’, and a ‘paradigm shift towards sustainable substrates’.

While not seeking deliberately to mislead, a process known as ‘greenwashing’, the terminology used to describe the ‘eco’ credentials of some of these products can lack clarity and consistency. The consumer is often left to determine the relative merits of the different raw materials from which cases are manufactured; to evaluate the pros and cons of disposal processes; and to interpret vague phrases such as ‘natural materials’ and ‘real materials’. This makes purchasing decisions more difficult.

Even more significantly, applying a ‘green sheen’ to a protective case description can lead customers to overlook the fundamental utility of such a product: namely the level of protection it provides for a device that can cost more than $1,000.  

Analysing raw materials

The eco-friendly device protection materials market broadly divides into five categories:

  • Bio-based: derived from plants or other renewable sources (not oil);
  • Biodegradable: capable of being broken down by bacterial or micro-organisms and assimilated into the natural environment without ecological harm during the process;
  • Recyclable: re-useable rather than destined for landfill;
  • Recycled: made from post-industrial and/or post-consumer waste; and
  • Compostable: regulated biodegradation over a defined length of time, leaving no toxic residue. ‘Home compostable’ means a material will break down and decompose into organic soil without intervention; ‘compostable’ means degradation can only be achieved in an industrial composting facility where the material is subjected to a temperature of at least 55°C for at least part of the process.

Some products fit more than one category, such as recycled and recyclable, or bio-based and compostable.

The raw materials used for the manufacture of cases range from the prosaic to the exotic:

  • Bamboo, cork and North American walnut;
  • Linseed plant waste and flax straw;
  • Recycled ocean plastic, fishing net fibres, fabric and plastic bottles; and even
  • Hand-picked and pressed organic flowers. 

Some are combined with bioplastics: plastic materials produced from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, wood chips, sawdust and recycled food waste.

What is clear is that each combination of raw material, disposal process and broad ‘eco-claim’ enables an attractive and compelling story to be woven around the product.

Consumers are now very aware of the problem of plastics in the environment. They are thinking about how they can help safeguard the environment through the purchasing choices they make. As a result, the protective case market is evolving quickly. Brands both large and small have spotted the potential for ‘eco’ and are releasing products with a sustainability angle.

The claims being made, however, must be more than words on packaging. In D3O's market research, there were times where there was limited data that would substantiate a claimed value proposition around sustainability.

When it comes to the key protective function of a case, there is often a similar lack of precision in the language used to describe the product’s impact resistance. Initially, few cases in the phone case market claimed to offer any impact protection at all, but more recent arrivals have quoted up to 10-foot drop protection.

The following impact protection claims were found in a review of the phone case market:

  • Of five biodegradable cases analysed, two made no drop protection claims, one claimed 5-foot drop protection, one 6-foot and one 10-foot.
  • Of three recycled cases analysed, two made no drop protection claims and one claimed 10-foot drop protection.
  • Of five bio-based cases analysed, three made no drop protection claims and two claimed 10-foot drop protection.

Substantiating claims

In September 2019, D3O identified an opportunity to go back to the fundamental purpose of a case – to protect the device – and place this in the context of sustainability. When work began to develop a grade of material made from renewable resources with no compromise on the brand’s market-recognized impact performance properties, the company’s on-site testing capability allowed for an extended feasibility stage where as many as 20 potential raw materials with sustainable properties could be explored.

“Instead of requiring suppliers to make samples and ship them, we can prototype something and test it literally the next day,” says Harry Walton, Test Engineer for D3O. “The electronic device protection industry moves very quickly to align with device launch dates so we may only have 9-12 months to develop a product. Without in-house testing, meeting this timescale would be almost impossible.

“As well as delivering rapid results to the materials team to identify which were worth further investigation, this tight feedback loop supported the education part of the project. It enabled rapid benchmarking at the outset to define what we needed to achieve in order to lead the market.”

In investigating a wide range of potential raw materials, the company's materials team sought to identify claims that could be substantiated and would make a difference to safeguarding the planet while protecting the device. Consumer perceptions of the eco-friendly materials being used to make cases were also explored:

Biodegradable, which conveys putting back into the environment, is a familiar term. However, the fact is, most things will biodegrade eventually – what matters are the length of time and the conditions needed.

As a consequence, some brands have opted for compostable, which is regulated and again is well-known as a term. However, it’s a misconception that a compostable substance will degrade in landfill; there isn’t enough available oxygen for this to happen. Also, home composting isn’t always practicable while industrial composting requires far higher temperatures than can be achieved in a domestic setting.

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Moving towards a bio-based solution

As the project progressed, the team began to focus their attention on a selection of materials, with the following key findings:

  • Bio-based materials can be manufactured from renewable resources, such as sugar cane, unlike conventional polymers which are made from depletable fossil resources that contribute to exhausting the planet’s limited resources.
  • There was an option for a bio-based material that provides the same technical properties and product protection as D3O’s traditional materials, while lowering carbon emissions, water consumption and waste.
  • This material was found to offer the greatest ability to deliver the impact protection benefit expected from any of the company’s products.
  • The material waste from the case production process can be directly recycled back into it, thus avoiding post-industrial waste.
  • The use of bio-based materials in other sectors is becoming widespread and winning consumer approval. This is particularly the case in packaging, where many products including ground coffee, ready meals and prepared sandwiches are now wrapped in bio-based polyethylene and marketed as plant-based.

D3O presented its partners with a small range of attractive value propositions using different materials. The outcome was that a bio-based material was felt to have the greatest potential to resonate with consumers. Its name is D3O® Bio.

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It makes sense to go for something that’s credible in other sectors and apply it to an industry where it’s not used very much. In the phone case world for instance, biodegradable and compostable cases are widely available, as are cases made from recycled material, but far fewer are strictly bio-based.

The choice of corn as the raw material used in D3O Bio was determined by factors in the supply chain such as availability, manufacturing location and process, and the polymer properties the company was looking to develop. What is particularly significant is the percentage of bio-based material from renewable resources it has been possible to incorporate in the product.

D3O was able to achieve up to 52 percent bio-based. This is a substantial step forward from anything on the market today.

In addition to the merits of its material composition, D3O Bio uses less water, less non-renewable energy and has lower CO2 emissions in the manufacturing process than a conventional raw material, as demonstrated by its life-cycle assessment.

An additional benefit is that bio-based materials are linked to an ISO standard which provides certainty about the material composition. ISO 16620-4:2016 specifies a method of determining the bio-based mass content in plastics products, based on radiocarbon analysis and elemental analysis. Having a standard behind this material gives the confidence to go out to consumers and say that the material produced meets this standard.

Outperforming the market

Strong sustainability credentials are all very well, but what about the essential protective qualities of D3O Bio? “From a testing perspective, we treated D3O Bio as we would any other material,” explains Walton. “There were no adaptations to our testing protocols because this was a sustainable material – it was put through the same rigorous processes. D3O Bio was expected to deliver comparable performance to our other electronics protection materials and to perform at least as well as those claiming the most protection on the market, with no trade-off between sustainability and impact protection.”

In fact, D3O Bio performs up to 21 percent better in impact tests designed to simulate real-life scenarios than phone cases claiming 10-foot drop protection, the highest figure currently quoted.

The material fully meets specific requirements in six other testing areas: abrasion resistance, dye transfer and material recovery are all related to the durability of the material in use, while assessments of hardness, stickiness and processing capability support the manufacturing process. 

In addition, D3O Bio meets ISO standard 22196-2011 for the measurement of antibacterial activity on plastics and other non-porous surfaces. The material kills 99.9 percent of most common surface bacteria.

“What was fascinating was to discover how eco materials are benchmarked and how they perform in a test environment,” reflects Walton. “For example, a material may offer high impact protection but have poor abrasion resistance. D3O Bio exceeded all the targets we set ourselves and delivered to the brief we had been given by our brand partners. In future we may revisit some of the materials we rejected as new innovations and processing capabilities emerge.”

This is an exciting time for the device protection industry as a whole, given the need to focus attention on sustainability in production and consumption: There may be a move towards a more circular way of producing products, or products designed for disassembly and reuse. There are great examples in other industries, such as new t-shirts made from recycled old ones and adidas’s fully recyclable FUTURECRAFT.LOOP trainers. Whilst there is no silver bullet for sustainability that suits every product or company there are some great resources out there that everyone can tap into; such as The Lazy Person’s guide to Saving the World and Nike’s Circular Design Guide.

There are also constant developments in recyclable materials and compostable plastics focussed on addressing the end of product life. The future may hold a phone case that is bio-based and compostable while also delivering on D3O's impact benefit, diversifying its range of sustainable phone case materials on offer.

For now, consumers will be able to protect both their device and themselves while reducing their environmental impact: a case manufactured from a bio-based grade of D3O material made from renewable resources, that is 99.9 percent antibacterial, with no compromise on the brand’s level of trusted protection.