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24 February 2020

The Hidden Environmental Toll of Smartphones

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If you’re reading this on a phone screen, you hold between your hand valuable pieces of the Earth’s crust which have been extracted from mines all over the planet. You’re not alone: an estimated 3.5 billion people use smartphones, almost half of the world’s population, and this number grows every day. It’s an environmental disaster, because building every phone requires the polluting extraction of irreplaceable elements like gold, cobalt or lithium. To make matters worse, the average user switches phone every two years without recycling the retired device, generating toxic waste and squandering materials. The model is unsustainable.

A phone’s birth is the most contaminating part of its life cycle: around 80% of each device’s carbon footprint is generated at the manufacturing stage. This is due to the mining, refining, transport and assembly of the dozens of chemical elements that make up cutting-edge tech: iron for the speakers and microphones, aluminium and magnesium for the frames and screen, copper, silver and gold for the electronic circuits, graphite and lithium for the batteries, silicon for the processor, and lead and tin for the solderings.

In the Salar de Atacama (Chile), water is evaporated to obtain the lithium that fuels our electronic batteries. Credit: Francesco Mocellin

Those are just the most recognisable elements. Nearly all phones also require 16 of the 17 rare-earth metals. These are substances like neodymium and terbium which are not actually all that rare — however they are scattered in small concentrations across the planet, which makes their isolation costly. China is their main exporter.

Minerals of blight and blood

Smartphones generate more greenhouse gases than any other consumer electronic devices, although their carbon footprint is modest compared to the main perpetrators of global warming, namely the energy sector and transportation. Even so, mining for components is deeply problematic, because besides contaminating the atmosphere, the process destroys ecosystems and generates tailings, toxic byproducts which seep into the soil and water.

According to Patrick Byrne, Senior Lecturer in Geography at Liverpool John Moores University, and Karen Hudson-Edwards, Professor in Sustainable Mining at the University of Exeter (UK), gold mining for the tech industry is one of the main causes of deforestation in the Amazon. In addition, the extraction process generates mercury and cyanide waste which contaminates river systems and drinking water. This sort of industrial activity is a global problem which affects people as well as ecosystems.

In Chile’s Salar de Atacama (and other Andean regions of Argentina and Bolivia), huge quantities of water are evaporated to obtain the lithium that fuels our electronic batteries, to the detriment of local farmers. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Democratic Republic of Congo has become the world’s main producer of coltan, a mineral containing tantalum for electronic devices which for years has been traded by armed groups to finance civil war.

Long live the phone

Given the extraordinary social and environmental cost of creating new smartphones, it would make sense to extend their lifespan for as long as possible — and yet, most phones aren’t durable or repairable. The website iFixit, which is run by consumers who defend their right to repair, slams manufacturers for common practices which prevent mending their products, like securing touchscreens and batteries with glue or not using universal fasteners for the internal components.

Coltan mines, an indispensable mineral in the technology industry, have financed armed conflicts in Congo and Rwanda. Credit: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti

Telephone service providers are another guilty party, as they encourage clients to switch phones with every new contract. In the Netherlands, the company Fairphone tries to avoid this squandering with a modular smartphone that can be easily fixed (the only one rated 10/10 on iFixit’s repairability score). “The average smartphone has a lifespan of two years — we aim for every Fairphone to last around five years,” says Fabian Hühne, a company spokesman. However, a recent study suggests that repairability is not always the limiting factor in phones’ life cycles.

“I know that people bash the phone companies for ‘planned obsolescence‘ of their products, but in most cases phones are replaced when they are still working fine,” says researcher Tamar Makov, from Yale University. Marketing and technological innovation play a key role, as people want the latest tech, but Makov’s studies have revealed that brand is also a key factor. By analyzing the sales of second-hand iPhones and Samsung phones, she and her colleagues discovered that Apple’s products had a lifespan on average one year longer, which they attribute to the “psychological factor” of owning a well-known branded product.

The smartphone afterlife

Most of the pollution produced by each mobile phone is during its manufacture. Credit: freestocks

Even after a fruitful life of use, toxic metals in phones will continue to contaminate water and soil if they end up in landfill sites. Current estimates place smartphone recycling below 15% in developed countries. Consumers are used to hoarding obsolete devices, whose components devalue with every year they spend in a drawer.

Some companies, like Fairphone, offer discounts on the purchase of a new phone if clients agree to recycling their old one. Unfortunately, the components on each device are so small and closely integrated that recycling efficiency barely reaches 30%. These sort of collection campaigns are now seen as the key to spark a change in consumer habits which will improve management of e-waste. If more old smartphones are gathered, recovery of their materials will become more profitable — and this, in turn, is an incentive for waste management companies to invest in the development of efficient recycling techniques.

Bruno Martín


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