Environmental Laboratory

  • How Do Smartphones Affect the Environment?

How Do Smartphones Affect the Environment?

Mar 04 2019 Read 1559 Times

In today’s increasingly cyber-centric society, the smartphone is everywhere. According to Gartner, 1.5 million smartphones were sold in 2017, with almost half of the global population carrying one in their pocket. In the UK, 85% of the adult population own one, which is even higher than the 75% of American adults who use a smartphone.

While these technological aids might provide endless benefits to our daily lives, what about their impact on the environment? The intensive production process, consumption of resources and throwaway culture of smartphones means that they might not be quite so clever in an environmental sense.

Resource-heavy

80% of the carbon footprint of a smartphone is created during the production process, with 16% accounted for by use during its lifetime and the remainder in transportation emissions getting it from supplier to consumer. That makes it one of the most resource-intensive commodities on the market, containing as it does such precious metals as aluminium, cobalt, copper, gold, palladium, platinum, silver, tantalum, tin, tungsten and others.

Not only is this a huge drain on these precious elements (many of which are predicted to become in short supply in the coming decades), but the mining efforts which are used to extract them also consume large amounts of fuel to do so. As such, the production process has a doubly detrimental impact on the environment – and that’s before the smartphone has even begun its life.

Better monitoring of mining methods and greater public awareness could go someway to encouraging more responsibility at the production stage, but at the moment huge multinational companies are not required to disclose information about the carbon footprint or environmental practices of their suppliers. This means that the issue is kept out of sight and out of mind, giving them little impetus to strive towards a cleaner operation.

E-waste not, want not

Another huge environmental problem posed by smartphones is what happens to them after their lifespan. In today’s consumerist society, where technological advances and fashion whims make manufacturers race against each other to produce smarter, slimmer and more attractive phones, people often “upgrade” their old phones while they are still perfectly serviceable.

This leads to an incredible amount of avoidable and unsustainable waste. Not only does the plastic housing of the phone contribute to the dangerous problem of microplastic, but there’s an even greater issue: e-waste. Under 16% of all e-waste is recycled each year, meaning much of those aforementioned precious materials end up in landfill.

That’s a terrible waste of resources, but also a hazard for human and planetary health. E-waste emits damaging contaminants such as arsenic, lead, mercury and zinc, as well as brominated flame-retardants, which can pollute the atmosphere and hamper the health of local populations. In order to minimise these damaging effects, both manufacturers and consumers must amend their habits to strive towards a more sustainable and less environmentally-harmful smartphone model.

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