Almost all of us have a smartphone – it’s essential, after all, if you want to navigate the modern world. But no matter how eco-friendly we consider ourselves, few of us pause to consider the impact our little device has on the environment.
For those of us who do realise, we often push that knowledge to the back of our minds because the technology is so vital for our daily lives. So, in truth, just how bad are our smartphones for the environment? Very is the short answer.
Even before the manufacturing of a smartphone begins in earnest, the materials it requires in production already impact the environment. Iron, aluminium, and copper are all needed in huge quantities to keep up with the manufacturing demand, as are 16 of the 17 officially designated rare-earth elements. These are mined, leading to deforestation, the damaging of ecosystems, and – in some cases – the destruction of communities, both human and animal.
It also creates toxic by-products which must be stored or disposed of, and have been known to leak into their surroundings. In Baotou, China, the world’s tech waste lake holds 68,800,000 cubic metres of toxic slurry, and is growing. Of course, there is also the issue of depleting resources by overusing these minerals without a long-term plan to restore or maintain them.
At least 80 per cent of the carbon footprint of a smartphone is created during the manufacturing process with an estimated 80kg of CO2 produced for every single device.
At over one billion new units each year, the total emissions become very significant, very quickly.
Smartphone manufacturers need huge amounts of power to run every aspect of their factories from the production line to testing facilities and even maintaining the correct temperature and humidity of their environments. To put it into context, smartphone manufacture generates roughly the same CO2 as the entire annual carbon emissions of Chile, a country of almost 20 million people.
After it is built and ready for service, the carbon footprint of a smartphone continues. First, there is the impact of packaging and shipping, which equates to around 2kg more per smartphone. Then, you get it into your hands and there is constant powering and charging.
While the individual numbers may seem small – charging your device once a day or every couple of days – compared to other electronic technologies in the home, when the total global use is added together the carbon footprint of charging all our phones is roughly similar to keeping 1.75 million petrol-fuelled cars on the road every year.
There’s also the carbon footprint of data streaming and storage, which is growing continually as our model of use becomes increasingly cloud-based. In short, every time you, your child or partner touches a phone, every time it lights up or produces sound, or every moment it is running background processes, it is making a tiny environmental impact which, across nearly 7bn simultaneous users worldwide, adds up quickly.
The environmental impact of a smartphone during its creation and use could be called justified, at least in some way, by the function it provides. However, when that function ceases, the impact continues. When you’re finished with the latest model, where do you put it? Often we shove them in a desk or kitchen drawer, perhaps with good intentions of finding somewhere to recycle it, only to forget about it entirely.
Less than 15 per cent of all smartphones are recycled, meaning the majority end their lives either by becoming landfill. Aside from the issue of non-biodegradable plastics and the removal of rare minerals from the supply chain, smartphone waste also creates pollutants which leak into the water cycle, impact natural ecosystems, and even add airborne pollutants to weather systems.
Latest estimates suggest the production rate of smartphones is five times higher than the growth in global human population. However you look at it, that places a great responsibility on every one of us to reduce the impact of these devices on our only planet.
Reduce The Impact
Much of the responsibility for reducing the environmental impact of smartphones must rest on the shoulders of the corporations which sell them – from Apple to Samsung – and the governments which regulate these industries. As with many of the major contributors to the climate emergency, real change will only be driven when it is done legislatively on an international scale.
That said, there are things that we, as individuals, can do to both minimise our own impact and encourage wider change which include:.
Upgrade Less Often
The average lifespan of a smartphone varies from country to country. In general, however, it is believed to be around two years. Many contracts encourage renewal between 12 and 24 months while built-in obsolescence and improved technologies also drive regular upgrades and replacements.
Though things have improved over the last decade, it is still rare for a smartphone to stay in use for longer than four years. The hardware, however, is capable of running efficiently for at least six to ten years, or as long as software support for it is maintained. Every extra year we keep our existing smartphone is another year a new one does not need to be manufactured or shipped, and another year its waste products won’t need to be stored or contained.
While most smartphone replacements are voluntary, some are forced due to accidental damage. By choosing devices that are more durable, and taking the best care to protect them, we reduce the risk of needing to replace them early.
Buying your own phone second-hand offers environmental benefits while potentially saving you the upfront costs of a completely new device. Some Dubai residents will be aware of places to visit in Bur Dubai to find refurbished and second-hand phones but you can also hop on dubizzle and see a wide range of used mobiles with plenty of life left in them. If your company has a contract with an IT company for repairs, ask them where they suggest buying second-hand mobile phones for a good reference.
Eighty per cent of every smartphone can be recycled, including up to 98 per cent of the gold, copper, cobalt, and tin. Most of the rare-earth elements within phones can also be reused. While, of course, there is an environmental impact from the recycling process, this pales in comparison to the cost of mining alongside the damage of assigning materials to landfill.
If a phone is recycled quickly, rather than being kept in a drawer for months or years, its components can often be reused in their complete state, or stripped for their elements more efficiently. When returning your phone to its initial supplier it might also be refurbished and resold, removing the need for a brand new unit to be manufactured.
Dubai Municipality provides a service where you can schedule e-waste pick-ups. Planet Green and Escrappy Recyclers also offer recycling services for all electronics and provide you with a certificate.
Use It Less
Not only is this likely to be good for our mental health, and our ability to be present in any room, but the simplest thing we can do to reduce the environmental impact of our smartphone use is to reduce that use. The less we touch our phone the less we will need to recharge it, the less its components will wear, and the less data it will use.
Make Ethical Choices
The idea of a fully responsible and sustainable smartphone may be far-fetched at present, but there are buying choices we can make that may encourage providers to focus their efforts on improvements in this area. By choosing to buy phones with efficient batteries, are designed to last longer, or are built from recycled elements, we show manufacturers this is what the market desires. By demanding ongoing software support for old devices and rewarding efforts to integrate the use of renewable power, we can help drive production trends in that direction. In a crowded market, there are already some brands and models which are more sustainable than others.
Fairphone, for instance, provides the only certified sustainable phone currently on the market. Its manufacturers use responsibly sourced aluminium, recycled plastic, and a five-year warranty to encourage extended use. The Samsung Galaxy S23 Series is built with recycled plastic, glass, aluminium, and paper, while the company as a whole has a 2025 target of achieving zero waste to landfill. Apple has made small advances with its iPhone 14 Pro by, the company claims, reducing the total carbon footprint of its entire life cycle to around 65kg – baby steps but every little helps.
Everyday small actions reduce the impact of our devices. Use a dim or black background image or screen saver to minimise use of the OLEDs and save energy. Dim your phone brightness to the darkest setting that is practical for you; close apps to stop them from running in the background, or even switch to flight mode when the phone is not in use. The differences are tiny but, with billions of phones in use, it all adds up.
The benefits of the technology we enjoy in the 21st century are incredible, and many aspects of our lives have been improved by the development of the smartphone. It is important, however, that we recognise the environmental impact of these products through every part of their life cycle, and understand our responsibility to minimise these effects in any way we can.
By working together in these small ways, we can drive for truly sustainable smartphones to be the next major innovation in the field.