Rethinking smartphones production and use: towards a more sustainable future

Smartphones are probably the most common device in industrialized countries and are also the most daily used object – recent statistics reveal that navigation on the Internet from mobile devices is indeed growing quickly. Furthermore, every six months new models are launched on the market, possibly to encourage users to upgrade sooner their “old”, although still functional, phones. This enormous amount of devices around, however, has a great impact on the environment in terms of CO2 emissions and dispersion of harmful substances, and many organizations are beginning to deal seriously with this problem.

Several research studies are conducted periodically to calculate the environmental impact of smartphones: they take into account of the greenhouse gas emissions along the entire lifespan of a device, from the procurement of material input to its disposal or reuse. This method is called Life Cycle Assessment, and it not only considers emissions along the way but also any form of danger for the natural environment and human welfare too, including the use of rare minerals, extremely hard to recycle and often recovered in poor countries under controversial conditions.

fairphone

The only problem with the LCA is that often it has to compete with undisclosed or insufficient data, and complex and different value chains. However, people’s sensitivity is playing a leading role in pushing electronics manufacturers to make the production of mobiles more “green”: for example, not using materials and semiconductors from conflict countries (Intel, HP and Motorola  are making great efforts in this direction) or totally eliminating the rare earth metals from their smartphones or decreasing the CO2 emissions per dollar of revenue from their manufacturing facilities.

An ethic alternative to large manufacturers is offered by Fairphone (“Ethical, open and built to last”), an Android smartphone exclusively produced under fair conditions, with minerals from mines that are not located in conflict regions, and assembled by workers who are guaranteed safe working conditions and fair wages. Fairphone is also a modular smartphone and it’s designed to be easily repaired and upgraded: the aim is to last as long as possible.

Finally, regarding the duration of smartphones, let’s mention The Restart Project,  a social enterprise that encourages people to use their electronics longer, “by sharing maintenance and repair skills”: recently The Restart Project has released on its website some data about the global footprint of cellular phones in the form of infographic. For example, in 2015 1.4 billion smartphones were sold: their total carbon footprint is just below Austria’s annual carbon emissions. Also, they estimated that if we used every phone sold this year for 1/3 longer, in three years we would prevent emissions equal to Singapore’s annual emissions.

restart project smartphones

And if our old phone is really coming to the end of its life, maybe we can still use it as a monofunctional device: camera, alarm clock, e-reader, old console emulator, or we can also turn it in a media player: there are plenty of options for recycling our old device and not throwing it away!

Today it’s the Earth day: it is our annual reminder to demonstrate support for environmental protection and sustainable development, especially in innovation. Sustainable manufacturing, “fair” smartphones, a longer use: all these solutions might not solve the problem of electronic waste completely, but they indicate how consumers’ sensitivity in such matters can make a difference and pave the way to an innovative approach in smartphone production, usage, disposal and recycling.