The Rise of Eco-Friendly Bluetooth Speakers

Bryn De Kocks | October 24, 2023 11:14 am

The evolution of Bluetooth speakers is rapid. New trends emerge in the industry each year, constantly moving the goalpost on how we define a quality speaker. With technology always improving, we’ve seen huge gains in battery performance thanks to new Lithium battery technology, but at what cost? The latest trend in Bluetooth speakers goes against the grain of traditional technological advancements and instead focuses on environmentalism. This is the rise of the eco-friendly speaker design. 

An eco-friendly speaker is most commonly manufactured using sustainable materials like bamboo or recycled plastics, though it sometimes extends into other areas of the design, such as the battery.

The Materials Used & How They Impact The Environment

To understand the importance of this shift towards eco-friendly production, one must understand the damage caused by traditional speaker designs. Typically, speakers are made up of three primary materials: metals, plastics, and rubbers. Typically, small amounts of silicone and foam (or other dampening materials) are present.

Plastics are prevalent in the manufacturing of Bluetooth speakers. Everything from the shell of the speaker through to buttons and handles tends to be made from various plastics. These plastics include ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), Polycarbonate, Polypropylene, Polyethylene, Polyurethane, and plastic blends. While our use of plastics has grown rapidly in the last fifty years, we are still only now discovering the potential health and environmental impacts of many of these materials.

Unlike most metals, plastics pose a significant environmental threat when discarded. Some are even non-biodegradable. This is how environmentally damaging each of these common plastic types is:

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, also known as ABS, is a commonly used plastic. It is durable and heat resistant while still being light. Despite its effectiveness in manufacturing, it is one of the worst plastics for the environment. It is not bio-degradable and can pose environmental risks for years if not recycled. While ABS can be recycled, there is often a lack of viable processing facilities for ABS in developing countries.

Polycarbonate

Polycarbonate is another durable plastic that is commonly used in manufacturing. Similar to ABS, Polycarbonate is non-biodegradable but is recyclable. It is also similar in that while it is recyclable, it is not supported by recycling infrastructure in many developing nations. One of the most prevalent concerns around Polycarbonate is the presence of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical associated with health concerns. These chemicals can also leach into the environment, causing additional environmental damage.

Polyurethane

Polyurethane is a widely used plastic that is available in various forms. It is most commonly used as a coating to improve the durability of a product. Polyurethane can be recycled, though there are concerns about the chemicals used during manufacturing.

Polypropylene

Polypropylene is less harmful than the previously discussed materials due to its low toxicity levels. However, like other plastics, it is not biodegradable. This plastic can, however, be recycled widely, even in some developing countries.

Polyethylene

Polyethylene, while not biodegradable, is one of the safer plastics. It is widely available for recycling worldwide, and innovations have even started the process of creating a biodegradable version of Polyethylene that would potentially revolutionize the world of manufacturing if made affordable.

The two most common types of metals used in manufacturing Bluetooth speakers are stainless steel and aluminum. While aluminum is a natural element and can break down with good efficiency over time, stainless steel is an alloy that often contains chromium. Chromium is used in the manufacturing process of stainless steel to provide additional erosion resistance. Erosion resistance is a benefit for a consumer but not for the environment. These metal alloys are more prone to causing lasting pollution, as they aren’t broken down by bacteria as quickly as aluminum.

Metals primarily impact the environment, not because of their time to break down but because of the mining and manufacturing processes involved. The list of ways in which metal mining damages the environment is lengthy. Still, we see the biggest impact primarily from mining pollution, water contamination, air pollution, and deforestation/habitat destruction.

Unfortunately, metals are a key component in the design of a speaker. While the exterior shell can be substituted with eco-friendly options, there aren’t alternatives to most of the interior metal components.

Synthetic rubbers are most commonly used in the construction of speakers. They are frequently used as materials for buttons, handles, and placement standoffs. These synthetic rubbers are not biodegradable and persist in nature for extended periods. Because of synthetic rubbers’ complexity and composition variations, they are not easily recyclable.

The Importance of Eco-Friendly Speakers

At first glance, Bluetooth speakers may seem innocuous in their environmental damage potential. However, because these speakers are frequently replaced with upgraded models, we can go through many of them over a relatively short period. Over an extended time, the disposal of old Bluetooth speakers becomes a concern, particularly if they are not recycled. 

Not only are these speakers commonly manufactured using environmentally damaging plastics, but the practices that go into the manufacturing process also influence the ultimate risk to the environment. Toxic chemicals are often associated with the materials manufacturing process, and some can even leach out into the environment, causing further harm over an extended period.

Therefore, it is important to many people that we move towards a more sustainable approach to manufacturing, not only about audio equipment but also manufacturing as a whole.

How Bluetooth Speakers Are Becoming Eco-Friendly

With this growing awareness around the impact of speaker manufacturing, there has been a shift towards sustainable speakers over the last several years. This movement has been influenced by the work of Bob Marley’s son, Rohan Marley. Rohan Marley is the mind behind House of Marley. House of Marley strongly focuses on producing environmentally friendly and sustainable audio products. They started producing eco-friendly speakers as far back as 2012 and, over the years, have built a dedicated fanbase and increased the reach of their speakers. House of Marley has typically incorporated bamboo and recycled plastics into its designs.


More recently, we’ve even started to see big-name manufacturers get on board with a sustainable approach to the design of their speakers. Sony launched the XB100, an evolution of the Sony XB13, which is now made partially from recycled plastics. We’ve also seen JBL come out with the Clip 4 Eco and Marshal with the Kilburn II.

Energy efficiency is another area we’ve seen improvements. Improved batteries and charging capabilities have enhanced energy storage efficiency, providing more play time with less charging power required. This area will continue to become more refined, with a strong global focus on improving the efficiency of batteries and trying to limit the environmental impact involved in building them, such as the mining of raw materials.

The move toward sustainability in consumer goods manufacturing is undeniable, and for many, this is a bright light at the end of a gloomy tunnel. We are still in the early stages of these manufacturing methods, and there are limitations to the process and subsequent concerns. However, this process can be seen as a symbol of progression towards a greener future.

eco-friendly speakers

List of Sustainable/Eco-Friendly Speaker Designs

There are still a limited number of eco-friendly Bluetooth speakers on the market, as we are still in the infancy of this movement. However, here are some brands and models which take an eco-friendly approach.

Model
Recycled Plastic
Bamboo
Eco Packaging
JBL Clip 4 Eco
Entire speaker
No
Yes
Sony XB100
Entire speaker
No
Yes
UE Wonderboom 3
Entire speaker
No
Yes
Marshall Kilburn II
Entire speaker, except for grille
No
No
Tribit Stormbox Blast Go
Entire speaker, except for grille
No
No
EcoXGear EcoBoulder
Housing
Housing
Yes
Fugoo Bloom 360
Housing, grille, end caps
Grille, end caps
Yes
Altec Lansing EcoBoulder
Housing
Housing
Yes
Aiwa Exos-3 Eco
Housing
Housing
Yes
Anker Soundcore Motion Boom Plus Eco
Housing, grille
Grille
Yes

The degree to which these speakers are eco-friendly varies between models. They will typically range between 15 and 40 percent recycled plastics. Some models offer negligible recycled plastics but still use eco-friendly terminology. If you’re concerned about the sustainability of your speaker, read the manufacturer’s specifications carefully to understand to which level your speaker is environmentally friendly.

The Bitter Truth About Eco-Friendly Designs

Despite the value eco-friendly designs bring consumers, there are still concerns around this topic. One of the more prevalent critiques is that the companies producing these eco-friendly designs usually offer just one or two smaller Bluetooth speakers with an eco-friendly approach while retaining traditional plastics for the rest of their product range. This has led to individuals seeing these products as a cash grab, more so than a sustainable philosophy around design and manufacturing.

This is especially true for eco-friendly designs still packaged in non-recycled plastics or packaging that does not represent the same sustainability as the speaker.

The prices of sustainable Bluetooth speakers are also noticeably higher than those found in traditional speakers of similar styles. This may become less prevalent as we work more with bamboo and recycled plastic manufacturing. This additional cost means there will be less adoption of these eco-friendly Bluetooth speakers in the short term, particularly in developing nations.

Many of these eco-friendly designs are less widely distributed and aren’t available in some countries. With time, there is hope that the prices will be low enough to be viable for global sales.

There are also concerns about the trade-offs in materials and performance. This is most noticeable in durability and audio performance. Plastics, while damaging, are durable materials that allow us to use our speakers outdoors in various weather conditions, and also the reason they can also take a knock or two. When speakers are made from certain eco-friendly materials, they can lose some of their ruggedness. This isn’t always the case, particularly where recycled plastic can produce impressive durability, but for materials like bamboo, both direct impact and water can cause easier damage.

Concerns around audio quality are also something to consider. We’ve spent decades using the same popular materials in most speaker construction, and when new materials are introduced, it can impact how the speaker sounds. With time, we do not doubt that acoustic engineering will improve the performance of many of these speakers. Audio quality is not always negatively impacted by the use of eco-friendly materials, which needs to be considered on a product-to-product basis.

In conclusion, the rise of eco-friendly Bluetooth speakers is likely to grow over time, and we suspect that in the next ten years, a large portion of the Bluetooth speaker market will have some form of eco-friendly materials in their design. This will most likely be in the form of recycled plastics and energy efficiency.

While we still have large strides to cover large-scale speaker manufacturing, it is positive that we have seen more brands come to the table and improve their speakers’ sustainability and address other ecological concerns in their long-term plans.

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Author: Bryn De Kocks

Bryn has worked in the field for several years, writing in-depth speaker reviews for various audio publications. His work has historically focused on headphones and Bluetooth speakers, while incorporating his understanding of the Bluetooth speaker market to help educate potential buyers.

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