Unravelling the Social and Environmental Costs of Smartphones

Since their 2007 release, over 7 billion smartphones have been manufactured.

Wisdom in a world of 'smart': frontline research from environmental advocates reveals how smartphone technology is impacting both humanity and the environment.

Author Frank Wichert:

Translation Alex Mitchell, 11.28.17

Walk out of your house in almost any city on planet Earth and you’ll witness the profound impact of mobile phones on society. Consistently, most passengers sit on buses glued to their smartphones, eyes cast downward and fingers scrolling intently. It seems that everybody has a smartphone. It’s no wonder why: since their 2007 release, more than seven billion smartphones have been manufactured. Today, the global rate of smartphone ownership is 54 percent of the global population – that’s some 4.3 billion people. And, with the first quarter of 2024 seeing the worldwide smartphone market growing by a considerable 7.8 percent, this number is only set to rise.

Amidst this technological explosion, extraordinary innovations in sustainability, health, agriculture and development are taking place. But, that isn’t to say that its impact is always positive. Within under two decades, the production and disposal of smartphones have had an enormous impact on both our environment and the widening gaps of social inequality around the world. According to Deloitte, smartphones were predicted to have produced 146 million tons of CO2 or equivalent emissions (CO2e) in 2022. In addition, each device contributes significantly to the 82 million tonnes of e-waste expected to be generated by 2030. All the while, workers in manufacturing countries continue to experience slave-like conditions as they mine for minerals or work in production plants to ensure that those with the means have the required unlimited supply of these technologies.

Fortunately, there are ways to quell the vicious cycle of consumption, waste and injustice perpetuated by smartphones. But, these require a hard look at our individual and market behaviours, as well as an awareness of both the environmental and human impact of one of the most sophisticated, ubiquitous, and yet ecologically short-sighted technological products on the market.

The human cost

In most cases, the cycle of smartphone production begins in a remote mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In a country blighted by conflict minerals, many mines are controlled by armed groups or violent, independent militias. Among these groups is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) located in eastern Congo, one of the last fragments of the Hutu rebel group which played a large part in the Rwandan genocide. In these cases, the local mining populations work under appalling conditions. Women and girls are regularly sexually abused and brutalised as militias move into mining areas. Making an average of 1 USD a day in an environment lacking in health or safety standards, workers as young as seven years old dig for minerals used in our devices.

The vast wealth of the DRC’s mineral ores did not spark the eastern conflict in 2008, but a major Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment of the DRC by the UN Environmental Programme in August 2017 warns of the destabilisation of the entire region due to disputes over mineral territory. Unfortunately, the same sources that anticipate an economic boom thanks to the 3Ts express concern over where the profits end up. Most are siphoned through illegal routes out of the country, and the individuals most negatively affected by the industry see little improvement to their livelihoods or communities.

The Environmental Cost:  A Story of Planned Obsolescence

While some estimates assert that smartphone lifespans have the potential of reaching up to 5-10 years, most consumers use them for an average of only 12-24 months. One look at the typical smartphone commercial, and it’s easy to see why. Advertisements for yearly updated models tout innovation and convenience, and have stimulated the growth in sales that has made Europe the biggest market for smartphones in the world. It is no secret that these manufacturers sell experience rather than product. Over 60 per cent of mobile phone sales are replacements for already-existing phones, 90 per cent of which are still functioning when they are discarded. Consumers want newer, better, faster; and smartphone providers give it to them.

The environmental implications of this are enormous. This constant updating has produced a huge amount of e-waste (less than 16 per cent formally recycled in 2014), most of which ends up in a landfill where harmful chemicals can leak into groundwater and affect both human and plant life. By 2020, it’s estimated that the EU will generate more than 12 million tonnes per year of waste from electrical and electronic equipment. Though campaigns around the world work to raise awareness about safe recycling or reusing practices, most of the environmental impact happens before the phones even make it to stores. Still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, the manufacturing process generates waste that is 200 times the weight of the phone.

At first glance, this information appears congruent with a consumer problem. This rate of individual consumption is unsustainable, and the average European citizen should reflect on how their behaviour impacts the environment. However, most research into solutions claims that changing consumer behaviour alone is insufficient. Current industry standards and few regulatory incentives create an environment where planned obsolescence is standard. Despite having a greater potential, phones are built to last just a few years, and updates are often designed to be incompatible with existing software. As phones become thinner and more breakable, repairs are impeded by expensive or irreplaceable parts.

To solve this is, the Greenpeace report mentioned above calls for a new business model in which “manufacturers measure their innovation not by fewer millimeters and more megapixels, but by designing devices to last.” It is only in this way, along with changing how we ourselves buy and (re)use smartphones, that the unsustainable trajectory of smartphone use can be transformed into a sustainable loop.

So what can the average person do to combat this problem? Here’s an article on how to recycle your old mobile phones, and check out the links below to learn about fair smartphone alternatives and what corporations are doing to snuff out the conflict mineral industry.

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