Too many phones: 14 years of smartphone use made a significant impact on the environment

    05 Sep 2021

    Smartphones have completely changed our lives and the whole world in the shortest possible time. Only 14 years ago, we used cameras to take photos, found a way with paper maps, and talked to family and friends with the help of text messages with T9 technology.

    If you are among the 3.8 billion people who use smartphones today, you probably remember where it all began. You remember how life changed when suddenly it became possible to connect the phone to the Internet; almost instantly find the way you need; send emails on the go; constantly be in touch with loved ones and find answers to everything, what interests you.

    But will you remember buying your second smartphone? And the third? How many smartphones have you had since 2007?

    We asked ourselves this question – it turned out that since the first iPhone, introduced by Apple in 2007, more than 7 billion smartphones have been produced. This number looks impressive. This means that if each of the manufactured smartphones were in working order, they would be enough for everyone on Earth.

    But that’s not the point. A smartphone is usually used for only two years in the US, despite its service life being longer, Greenpeace states. Users can’t resist the temptation to change the gadget. They may have switched to a new contract under which a new phone is “gifted,” or because the old device has started to have problems with the display or battery, which not everyone can afford to replace or repair.

    At this rate, we’re all on track to use at least 29 phones in our lifetimes.

    Thanks to such a fast “cycle” of gadgets, smartphone manufacturers have been making a profit for years. But for the same reason, people and the environment suffer.

    For all these gadgets, miners mine tons of metal ore and precious metals in remote corners of the globe. Then these materials undergo a complex of cleaning, processing, and production. Workers in factories, often without knowing it, are exposed to dangerous substances that destroy their health. Factory equipment runs on a mixture of fossil fuels, which contributes to climate change.

    In Greenpeace’s report From Smart to Senseless: The Global Impact of Ten Years of Smartphones (2017), activists unpack the problems with the current smartphone production model.

    Here is some of what they found:

    ·  7.1 billion smartphones were produced ​in 2007-2017.

    ·  More than 60 different elements are commonly used in the manufacturing of smartphones. While the amount of each element in a single device may seem small, the combined impacts of mining and processing these precious materials for 7 billion devices are significant.

    ·  In 2014 alone, e-waste from small IT products like smartphones was estimated to be 3 million metric tons. Less than an estimated 16% of global e-waste is recycled.

    ·  Only two (Fairphone and LG G5) of 13 models reviewed had easily replaceable batteries. This means consumers are forced to replace their whole devices when the battery life starts to dwindle.

    ·  Since 2007, roughly 968 terawatt-hours (TWh) have been used to manufacture smartphones, nearly the same as one year’s power supply for India (973 TWh in 2014).

    ·  At end-of-life, current design makes disassembly difficult, including the use of proprietary screws and glued in batteries; therefore, smartphones are often shredded and sent for smelting when “recycled.” Given the small amounts of a wide diversity of materials and substances in small devices, smelting is inefficient or ineffective at recovering many of the materials.

    Despite many challenges, the IT sector has good potential to address these challenges. It can be an example to all industries through the transition from a linear production model to a circular model – the only one in which precious raw materials are reused.

    The power of technology and creativity can be harnessed to destroy outdated business models. Leading IT companies can become the most prominent lobbyists for a circular production model and an energetically renewable future. The most talented developers can finally create non-toxic gadgets that need to be repaired and eventually transformed into something new.

    86 kilograms of waste from just one phone

    The production of one mobile phone weighing 169 grams causes the appearance of 86 kilograms of garbage and has a climatic cost of 140 crowns ($16 – Ecolife). The Swedish Environmental Institute (IVL Svenska Miljösinstitutet) and the Swedish Waste Company (Avfall Sverige) calculated a “garbage trail” (the ratio of the mass of production waste to the finished product) of eleven ordinary consumer goods.

    In their study, IVL and Waste Sweden looked at the “garbage trail” and the climatic value of selected consumer products. They have developed a special method for calculating this indicator. The aim was to increase knowledge and awareness among consumers about how much waste is generated during production, as they significantly exceed the product’s weight.

    “It is quite difficult for consumers to see the overall environmental impact of their consumption. They see only the waste that is generated from the disposal of the products they use – and do not notice those that occur during production and,” – says Åsa Stenmarck, head of the waste network.

    Shoes and computers

    In total, organizations studied the “environmental footprints” of eleven products. One laptop generates 1,200 kilograms of waste, and the bottom of the drill – up to 52 kilograms. A kilogram of beef creates more leftovers (4 kilograms) than a kilogram of chicken (860 grams). One liter of milk has a relatively low “garbage mark” (97 grams), but it increases by about 10% when you consider the “trace” of a milk package (9 grams). This figure for a pair of cotton pants is 25 kilograms, sportswear – 17 kilograms, leather shoes – 12 kilograms.

    The study results show that there are significant environmental benefits from producing fewer products and using them more efficiently than we have. Then a person can reduce the “garbage trail” of their total consumption.

    “This report supports the argument that all people should think about how we consume products and encourage companies to introduce more climate-sustainable business models – repairing, borrowing and recycling is an effective way to sustainable development,” said Åsa Lindskog from the company “Waste Sweden.”

    Storing an old mobile phone is a significant threat to the environment

    According to recent year’s research, the endless cycle of phone upgrades – when consumers buy phones every time a new model comes out, i.e., every two years – has a severe impact on the environment.

    The study, published in 2017 in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, reviewed the scientific literature on the environmental impact of the production, use, and disposal of smartphones. It turned out that many phone manufacturers do not encourage consumers to return old phones for recycling, and owners throw away phones or keep them at home instead of disposing of them. Therefore, the metals needed to make new phones – including gold, copper, remain unused, and zinc – remain unused.

    Also, according to the study, the production of new phones to replace the old ones is carbon-intensive. James Sackling, a researcher at the University of Surrey in the UK, said that around 85 million phones in the UK remain unused. In total, these phones contain about four metric tons of gold. The production of this amount of gold will cause the emission of 84 thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide (if you produce 85 million new phones to replace the old ones). And if these phones end up in landfills instead of lying in the owner’s drawer, dangerous amounts of lead and other metals can enter the environment.

    Sackling told ThinkProgress that the biggest problem is that only a few companies encourage customers to return old junk phones. This means that old mobile phones are often kept in people’s homes until they lose their value, and then, instead of being recycled, they are thrown away. Sackling said that worries him the most.

    “The problem is not so much the greenhouse gas emissions that are generated during the production of metals for phones, but the fact that valuable resources are wasted at home by consumers, so they can be lost to production,” he said. – “I am even more concerned that millions of phones are in this situation. From an environmental point of view, it is better to reuse metals than to extract them from the subsoil, and if we throw away all these phones, these metals can only be replaced by further mining.”

    Mobile phone recycling

    The report recommends that phone manufacturers move to a cloud-based business model. Thus, manufacturers will transfer the primary devices for data storage and data processing to a remote server. As a result, the phones themselves will be simpler and require fewer rare metals for memory chips and other parts.

    “The proposed cloud-based business model would give consumers access to communications, and the phone would be leased for that purpose,” Sackling said. – “This means that the business itself (not consumers) would have an incentive to return the phones. Then the business can decide how best to use the phone – rework or reuse.

    Sackling said he did not yet know for sure how to interest such a system of phone manufacturers. Regarding the recycling of old telephones, he said that the European directive on used electrical and electronic equipment is the beginning because it sets goals for the recycling of electronic waste. But there are still not enough economic incentives for recycling.

    However, even when an electronic device is recycled, there is a chance that some of its parts will be exported to developing countries, such as China or Ghana, where people – even children – look for precious metals in piles of electronics and burn the rest. Cell phones are part of this pervasive e-waste problem, which is a substantial environmental and health problem in developing countries. According to this year’s UN report, 90 percent of the world’s e-waste is sold or dumped every year. E-Stewards, approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), facilitates the search for responsible recyclers by setting a standard for companies and organizations participating in its certification program, prohibiting recyclers from sending e-waste abroad.

    A September 2014 study found that 44% of the 1.8 billion new cell phones purchased in 2014 would end up in their owners’ drawers, 4% would end up in landfills, and only 3% would be recycled. It also turned out that of the 40 elements contained in the mobile phone, only 17 can be fully recovered, even at high-tech processing plants.

    Sackling also said that a new system should be introduced for phone manufacturers, but no less necessary is a change in the way consumers think – not to buy a new phone in a year or two, but to use the old one while it works properly.

    “We need a significant culture change, directed and to understand what we are doing. Then the return scheme will work,” he said. “I cannot speak for all companies, but many of them realize that resources are depleted, and to stay in business, in the near future, they will need other methods of work. But now the economic strategy of selling as many phones as possible outweighs the environmental consequences.”You may read about e-waste problems in our author’s review of the movie “Death by design” – “The corporate-planned death of electronics.”

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