The environmental cost of smartphones

Environmental costs of smartphones  

If you’re reading this, the chances are you have a smartphone. In our increasingly connected world where we depend on technology to get through our daily lives, having a smartphone just makes sense for a lot of people. To most, they probably seem like little blocks of magic that allow you to chat with your friends. In this post, I’m going to look behind the touch screen and answer the questions you might be asking: how sustainable is my smartphone? What is the environmental cost of smartphones?

I’m going to begin with a little disclaimer: In this post I’m only going to be talking about the sustainability of smartphones and not the other potential negative effects of them like social media addiction. That’s a topic for another time 😉

The first step: The mines

Your smartphone starts its life deep in the mines of various countries. When I first heard this I was hoping that there was an iPhone mine where miners were digging to find fully assembled iPhones, but it turns out it is referring to the minerals and metals needed to start manufacturing. These are needed for the more obvious aspects of the phone such as the metal casing, but large quantities are also needed for each individual component inside as well as for the battery. Labor conditions and safety in these mines are often very poor. They all need to be shipped long distance as they are mined from all corners of the globe. Worst of all, some of these minerals are in short supply which could pose a problem in the future if we overuse them.

Turning minerals into components

Whilst we often know our smartphone is made by Apple, Samsung or one of many others, what we don’t know is that there are components from potentially hundreds of different companies inside the phone. Ranging from Japanese screen providers to American processor providers and even to the Chinese company that makes the small screws, it is a huge international logistics network which once again involves huge volumes of long-distance shipping to get all of these components into one place. Some of these components present their own challenges, such as the battery which can leak toxic fluid into the environment. Large amounts of electricity are also required to create these components, releasing huge volumes of fossil fuels.

The assembly process

When all of your phone’s components are together, they can be assembled in a semi-automated process often in a developing country such as Thailand and China. Labor conditions are once again often questionable. They turn bags of parts into a fully functional phone, loaded with the operating system you’re going to interact with on a daily basis. They put it into a box and then ship them around the world in bulk, ready for you to get your excited hands on them. Of course, there’s an environmental cost to this every step of the way to your door, from the factory to shipping warehouses to stores and then to your house.

Some of the manufactured phones are rejected by quality control because they have the slightest issue – a small mark here or there in some cases. This is great for our desire for perfection, but unfortunately does mean these perfectly functional devices and their materials go to waste (often completely destroyed if it would be too time consuming to disassemble them).

Time to charge

You’re loving spending your time on your phone, talking to your friends and watching videos. All the while your phone is using battery and will need to be charged once per day (or more!). As most energy sources in use are unsustainable, it’s likely that you’ll be charging it through non-green energy. This adds up over longer periods of time.

Out with the old, in with the new

The average amount of time people keep their phone for is 12 – 24 months, despite the fact that they can normally run for 5 – 10 years. As a result, a lot of phones are either sent to landfill, are destroyed or are just left sitting in a drawer after just a year. This means that the whole process begins again as you want to upgrade to a new phone.

How did this happen and what can I do?

You don’t upgrade your fridge to a new model every year because it is slightly better at keeping your food cooler, but somehow the smartphone manufacturers have convinced us that we should be doing this with phones despite only minor improvements in most cases. They can do this by only updating the software of their latest phones, so that you miss out on features they could easily give you unless you buy a whole new one. They also make it very difficult for components like the battery to be repaired, which could make you buy a whole new phone instead. The business model appears to try to make you unhappy with your purchase on day 2 so that you’ll be longing for the next one.

I am also one of those people who has upgraded their phones often, something which I am working on myself. After investigating, it turns out there are actually plenty of things you can do to make a small difference 🙂

  • Try to use your current smartphone for as long as possible (preferably 3 – 4 years).
  • If you want to upgrade your phone, consider purchasing a second hand phone.
  • When you do buy a new phone, make sure your old one goes to good use by either selling it onto someone else or making sure it is properly recycled.

I am a big believer that smartphones can offer a lot of good in the world. If everyone made some slight changes to the way they use them, the environmental cost would also be much better 🙂

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