Some 80% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint derives from its manufacturing, according to the UN.
Many of us can’t live without our smartphones. Yet collectively these little devices, of which 2.5 billion will be in use globally this year, have quite a sizeable environmental footprint.
Because of all the energy consumed by smartphones and the energy consumed by the servers that store all the data we use on our phones, these gadgets could account for 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions within a decade. By 2040 that number could well rise to 14%. “Our smartphones are among the most resource intensive by weight on the planet,” the United Nations explains.
Some 80% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint, however, derives from its manufacturing, with another 16% incurred during its later use.
But there is more. Few smartphones last more than a few years, which means that most of them end up as electronic waste sooner or later. The electronics industry generates some 41 million tons of e-waste each year, less than 16% of which gets properly recycled. This means that large quantities of valuable and rare materials like palladium and platinum are wasted.
In a new report “Waste crime – Waste risks,” Un Environment explains that the vast amounts of e-waste, including computers, mobile phones, television sets and refrigerators, also pollute the environment with toxic substances such as mercury, arsenic, zinc lead and brominated flame-retardants.
“Beyond carbon footprint, the biggest environmental concern where e-waste is concerned is the impact at the end of a product’s life,” observes Feng Wang, an expert at UN Environment’s Life Cycle Thinking and Sustainable Consumption and Production. “Recycling practices, especially in developing countries, mean that pollution from hazardous materials and metals at dumping sites has grave consequences for the local environment and informal workers.”
And as more and more people worldwide will want to have the latest models, the industry’s carbon footprint is bound to get larger still. “Tough competition drives mobile companies to produce the next, best, latest, thinner and smarter phone. Product lifetime is getting shorter and shorter, thus less sustainable,” Wang says.
“We can all play a part by recycling, reselling or repurposing our smartphones with responsible organizations. But recycling or buying fewer models won’t solve the problem alone,” he adds. “In 2016, around 435,000 tonnes of mobile phones were discarded across the globe, with an estimated cost in raw materials of US$10.7 billion. If all phones had a longer life span and could enter a second-hand market, the value could be even higher.”