Are Sustainable Smartphones a Potential Reality?

Are Sustainable Smartphones a Potential Reality?

It’s no big secret that electronics and electronic waste (e-waste) are huge contributors to environmental pollution on Earth. In fact, a shocking 41.8 million tons of electronic waste was disposed of in 2018 alone. 

That’s the equivalent of more than 16 billion individual laptops, assuming one laptop has a mass of 5 pounds!

But, it isn’t just electronics manufacturing and e-waste that is harmful to the environment. For example, throughout a smartphone’s lifespan, phone calls, text messages, and internet browsing all contribute to carbon emissions and the phone’s overall carbon footprint. 

E-waste landfill filled with old computers
Image by George Hotelling from Canton, MI, United States (E-waste recycling in Ann Arbor) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One report found that the carbon emissions generated by just two years of using a smartphone surpassed the initial carbon emissions from manufacturing the phone itself! In fact, the carbon emissions from initially manufacturing a smartphone equalled about 95% of the carbon waste from actually using the smartphone over two years.

The report also found that by 2040, computing and information technology would account for 14% of the world’s carbon emissions (up from 1% in 2007), unless internet companies start to move towards renewable energy and more sustainable products. 

With so many resources needed to manufacture a smartphone and make it work, sustainable smartphones may sound like a pipe dream.

But with many innovations now making technology and devices more eco-friendly, is it actually possible for smartphones of the future to be more sustainable? 

Below, we explore the many aspects of smartphones and how they can be improved for the good of the planet. We’ll also go over how you can be more sustainable with your smartphone. 

How Can We Make Smartphones More Sustainable?

Circuitry

Printed Circuit Board

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are the physical structures on which electronic components attached and connected to each other. The manufacturing of these circuit boards emit a variety of toxic waste by-products like acid fumes, CFCs, and more.

When you examine what components are in a PCB, it soon begins to reveal the device’s complexity. Intricate smartphone PCBs are typically made out of specialised wires and metals that, unfortunately, require a lot of resources to mine and process. 

Related Post: The Environmental Effects of Mining

Many of these rare metals are becoming more and more scarce and difficult to find in the Earth. In response, manufacturers are looking for ways to recycle PCBs, so they don’t have to mine for more resources.

Batteries

Modern phone batteries are made of lithium and are known as lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-batteries, like any other battery, don’t last forever. The more you use your phone and the more charging cycles, the more the battery deteriorates and the less charge your battery will hold.

IPhone X Internals
The iPhone X battery is split into two parts – the first part of the battery is the rectangle with the recycling symbol, and the second part is above that (with the warning symbol)

This is why you’ll notice that as you use your phone, your battery life progressively gets worse and worse, year after year.

The biggest issue with smartphone batteries now is that they’re mostly sealed in the phone, and are difficult for normal people without technical experience to replace. 

Battery deterioration can cause your phone to slow down or sometimes shut off completely, making people believe that their phone is too old or outdated to use. Usually, consumers buy a new phone instead of replacing the battery on their old one (usually because it is too difficult to do so).

To stop this bad practise, the EU recently launched their Circular Economy Plan. Part of the proposal is to make batteries that are easier to replace. That is, by having a removable battery instead. Once your battery deteriorates, you can buy a replacement and change it yourself. If your phone can last longer, it’ll be much more sustainable.

Screens

Screens are in the same boat as batteries. Once they crack, it’ll be tempting to just ditch the phone and buy a new one. This is especially true for iPhones and other high-end brands, as the manufacturers (especially Apple) usually charge a lot of money for parts and repair. This is partly due to the advanced (and expensive) technology in these screens. 

According to technicians, an iPhone screen replacement from Apple will cost you an average of CAD$181 to CAD$463 depending on your iPhone model. The latest models, like the iPhone 11 Pro Max, can even cost as much as CAD$844. 

To this end, manufacturers are encouraged to work on the sustainability of their screen’s manufacturing and melding process to make it cheaper to replace.

So far, some efforts have been made. Dutch tech company Fairphone designs their devices to be modular and easily repairable. Most major parts of the phone can be removed and replaced without any special tools. Fairphone even encourages their users to repair their own devices, offering the required parts for sale in their online shop, as well as tutorials.

Accessories

Similar to smartphones, accessories pose another challenge in our pursuit for global sustainability. Whether it’s earphones, phone cases, power banks, and more, the gathering of raw resources and the manufacturing of smartphone accessories cause a lot of damage to the environment.

Thankfully, there are companies dedicated to sustainability in the phone accessory space. For example, companies like BLAVOR, GoerTek, and Dostyle are creating portable solar power banks. Brands like Woodbuds and Thinksound are also producing earphones using bamboo and cotton.

How Can You Be More Sustainable With Your Smartphone?

1. Think Twice Before You Upgrade

Before you upgrade to the newer model, think about whether or not you really need that new iPhone or Samsung device. 

If your phone is broken, consider getting it repaired instead of directly buying a new phone. And if it’s slowing down or starting to hold less charge, consider replacing the battery instead of replacing your entire phone for a new one. 

2. Sell, Donate, or Recycle your Smartphone Instead of Throwing it Away

If you do decide to upgrade to a new smartphone, don’t throw your old one away! Old devices are still useful, even if you think they’re slow or outdated.

Sell Your Device

The second-hand market for phones is HUGE. A good place to sell used electronics (without any fees) is Craigslist. You can sell your old devices by posting a local ad and meeting up with potential buyers. 

Generally, any iPhone 6 or newer will be worth it to sell on the used-phone market. For Samsung phones, generally any phone newer than a Samsung Galaxy S6 will be worth it to sell.

Donate Your Device

If your phone is too old and not worth it to sell, you can donate it to a variety of institutions and organizations, like long-term care homes, nursing homes, veterans organizations, or thrift shops like the Salvation Army.

Recycle Your Device

Finally, another option is to sell/donate your device to a cell phone recycler, who will extract the valuable metals and components in your device and ensure that they aren’t needlessly wasted.

3. Take Better Care of Your Devices

By taking better care of your phone, it will last longer and you won’t have to upgrade as often. For example, keep your phone in a case (and/or a screen protector) to protect it from scratches and drops.

You should also take care to regularly delete unused and unimportant apps, videos, and images that are taking up space in your phone. In general, as your phone’s storage gets filled up, it will get slower and less responsive. 

We still have a long way to go before we arrive at a completely sustainable smartphone. But as long as we have enough advocates, companies, and manufacturers who care enough about the impact they make, consumers will also have an easier time to make more responsible purchasing choices.

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