The Startup Trying to Make Smartphone Chargers the Next Big Eco-Friendly Product

An eco-friendly Nimble smartphone charger.

Consumer gadgets haven’t historically been environmentally friendly. Smartphones are made from a number of metals mined from the earth, including gold, lithium, aluminum, and copper. Cobalt, a material often incorporated into lithium-ion batteries—the type of battery used in nearly every mobile device or portable charger—is particularly toxic and hazardous. Plastics, also commonly used in consumer electronics and accessories, are increasingly populating our landfills. According to stats shared by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015, only 12.5 percent of e-waste is recycled. Some companies are taking small steps to develop more eco-friendly products, but a new tech accessory company called Nimble is building its business around the idea.

Nimble launched Wednesday with several lines of chargers and cables. Its products eschew petroleum-based plastics in favor of plant-based ones, and use fabric blends made from recycled plastic bottles. Its packaging is made from biodegradable recycled scrap paper free of harmful inks or dyes.

“We really feel the business model for tech accessories is broken,” Nimble co-founder Kevin Malinowski said. Malinowski and Nimble’s other founders are ex-Mophie employees, so they know the consumer tech industry, and the battery space in particular.

Nimble isn’t the only company working toward more environmentally-friendly goals. Audio product–maker House of Marley built its brand around “mindfully sourced materials” such as bamboo, wood composite, recycled paper, and a fabric blend made from reclaimed cotton, hemp, and recycled PET. Smartphone case–maker Pelacase only makes products with compostable bioplastic and flax straw materials, delivered in minimal plastic-free packaging. And Rohu’s ReLeaf is an indoor HDTV antenna made from recycled cable box waste.

Big tech companies have started getting in on the eco game, too. Apple has a section of its website dedicated to its environmental efforts, which include powering all of its global facilities with renewable energy. It reduced the amount of plastic in its packaging, and the paper used is either recycled or responsibly source. The company stopped using PVC, a difficult-to-recycle type of plastic, in its chargers, and in its product designs, it relies heavily on aluminum—a material that is infinitely recyclable. Apple’s efforts have garnered it the top spot on Greenpeace’s list of most environmentally friendly companies for multiple years. HP has also taken steps to reduce its environmental impact, using recycled printer cartridges in the production of new cartridges. Dell has aggressive sustainability goals and partnered with actress-turned-jewelry designer Nikki Reed on a collection of jewelry sourced from recycled metals from computer motherboards in order to raise e-waste awareness.

For Nimble, being eco-friendly isn’t an afterthought or a one-off project. It’s worked with manufacturers from the beginning in using recycled and environmentally-friendly materials in an effort to change the tech accessory landscape. With each purchase, consumers are given a prepaid return envelope so they can easily send in old and obsolete electronics for recycling with the company’s partners. And its recycled composites also have benefits for buyers: According to Malinowski, the lower-impact materials they use are actually more durable, making for a better overall product.

If you didn’t know the company’s background, you might not even realize the difference. Gadgets like its 10k portable charger look similar to non-eco-friendly alternatives. In pricing, Nimble’s products vary: That 10k charger costs twice as much as some competitors, but for other products, such as its larger capacity 26k portable charger, pricing is comparable with other brands.

Nimble’s debut products range in price from $40 to $100 and are available for purchase on its website. If the company succeeds in its mission, it will help consumer electronics manufacturers gain familiarity with working with recycled materials and help influence other accessory makers to make environmentally-friendly changes to their products or packaging, too. But it is a business after all: It’ll need consumers to buy into the mindset to succeed. For the planet’s sake, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they did.