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Are mobile phones eco-friendly? Or are they quite damaging to the environment as we suspect? It would be great if all phones were eco-friendly. According to Statista, there are over 15 billion mobile devices – that’s almost 2 mobiles for every human being currently on the planet! This fact alone challenges the idea that phones are (or can be) eco-friendly. In this article, we discuss the environmental friendliness of mobile devices and how we can reduce their environmental impact.
What are the Benefits of Mobile Phones?
Smartphones are now part of everyday life for a vast majority of people on the planet. Whilst we call them mobile ‘phones’, they are anything but. We use them for everything- to pay for stuff, to play games, to watch videos, browse the internet and take pictures. Making calls represents a fraction of their use. There are now so many devices on the planet that some phones laid end to end could reach the moon.
For devices to be eco-friendly, we would need to consider what happens throughout the lifetime of a smartphone. We need to know how they are produced but also what happens at the end when a phone is no longer used.
Are Mobile Devices Eco-Friendly?
They can only be eco-friendly if they do not harm the environment. Unfortunately, we all know that the manufacturing process is harmful to the environment because smartphones are mass-produced. Sourcing materials for the microchips involves mining toxic materials. For example, Indium Tin Oxide is used to make touchscreens for smartphones. The miners are exposed to this substance and suffer many health issues as a result. There are other minerals that also cause significant harm to those involved in the extraction and the surrounding areas (e.g. polluting water sources).
The social impact of mining is also significant. Most of the metals are mined in areas of conflict so child labour is used to extract the metals. Many manufacturers claim to have eliminated child labour from their production but if mining is outsourced to a private company, then it is hard to see how child labour can be avoided. Many children die or are injured as a result of mining in hazardous conditions. This not only affects the child but their family too, especially if the child is one of providers in their family.
Then there is the manufacturing process in factories. Most of the electricity is produced by coal-powered stations so the CO2 emissions involved in manufacturing are astronomical (from 17 megatons of CO2e per year to 125 megatons of CO2e per year) – a 730% increase between 2010 – 2020.
The use of phones and other communications technology, such as data centres and the communications network contribute to the carbon footprint too. Software updates also add to the carbon footprint. It would be fair to say that the smartphone industry as it is now, is simply unsustainable.
Finally, we have to consider e-waste. Very few devices are durable so less than 15% are recycled properly. That means over 85% of phones are thrown away which adds to the negative environmental footprint. We need to work out a system that keeps old phones in use for longer.
How to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Mobile Phones?
Our phones are essential to us because they offer a number of benefits. However, they also have a negative impact on the Earth and our throwaway economy is contributing to climate change. There are a number of ways to reduce this impact. We can:
- Refuse: to buy a new phone just because it happens to look better than the one you have
- Reduce: just stop buying stuff – buying a new smartphone for the fleeting buzz of something ‘new’. Is it really worth it?
- Reuse: ditch the disposable for the reusable. Ditch the trends and use your mobile for longer
- Repair: self-explanatory really, you can get gadgets repaired rather than throw your mobile (and money) away
- Recycle: if you really do need a new mobile, recycle your old one and buy a refurbished mobile; your pocket and the planet will thank you for it!
Manufacturers can also reduce the impact on the environment by using recycled materials in the phones themselves and in the packaging.
Some manufacturers are now starting to make devices with recyclable materials such as rare earth elements to avoid mining conflict materials. Manufacturers are also avoiding toxic chemicals like brominated flame retardants.
Many manufacturers have realised that taking advantage of individuals in conflict areas and damaging the environment is not a good (ethical) business model and are now trying to making efforts to be transparent about their supply chain. Hopefully, other manufacturers will follow suit.
We need to sort out waste
Despite these efforts, we still have an issue with e-waste. This is the other part of the consumption process that needs to be changed. Manufacturers can rave about their eco-friendly smartphones but no such product can truly exist until the issue of waste is tackled. Sustainable phones are ones that are kept out of landfills and avoid leaking pollutants into the ground.
Fundamentally, we are social beings and we need to feel connected to others which is why we feel the need to have a mobile. But we need to move away from the need for new stuff, avoid buying new devices and follow circular economy principles instead; we need to re-use, recycle and repair. As smartphone users, we need to be smart about how we source and dispose of our devices.
Collectively, we can make environmentally friendly decisions like buying refurbished smartphones; there are plenty of refurbished phones on the market. There are also devices with repairable components that can be swapped or repaired rather than thrown away – they are the only eco-friendly phones. Most people these days now understand that newer smartphone models are pricey but we are not paying the true price – the planet is.