Are Smartphones Environmentally Friendly?

Environmentally Friendly?

Smartphones are an inescapable part of our lives these days. We carry them around with us all day, using them for everything from sending messages to purchasing things online. Chances are you are even reading this article right now using your smartphone, but have you ever thought about the environmental impacts of your handy little pocket computer and if they are environmentally friendly?

Smartphones are not environmentally friendly because they require lots of materials to be produced, use services like the internet, require more resources to run, and are often not recycled properly, causing devastating environmental effects.

Continue reading for more information about the environmental impacts of smartphones, why smartphones have these impacts, and what can be done to ensure that our future is as sustainable as possible.

What Are the Environmental Impacts of Smartphones?

Do you ever start the day thinking about your children or grandchildren’s future on planet earth? You may have also considered the impact of overpopulation and the global effect of your trash in our environment, cities, landfills, oceans, and waterways on those children and grandchildren.

The environmental impact of smartphones is immense, although many people do not realize it. This effect is because it can be hard to quantify how many resources you are actually using every time you use your smartphone. After all, as far as you can see, it is just a small device that does not even require a constant electrical connection.

However, smartphones have significant environmental effects in every stage of their lifecycle, from the manufacturing process to the moment they are discarded. Everyone must be aware of these impacts to make more informed choices and understand the solutions to these problems.   

Smartphones Require a Lot of Resources To Produce

Smartphones Require a Lot of Resources To Produce
Kalgoorlie Super Pit Open Cut Gold Mine.

When smartphones are produced in a factory, lots of resources must be used, both in the components of the smartphone themselves and in the process of making them. According to the United Nations, smartphones “are among the most resource-intensive [items] by weight on the planet.” They also explain that smartphones have a big carbon footprint, 80-85% of which is generated in the manufacturing process and 16% during use by the owner.

First of all, it is important to know that smartphones contain valuable resources such as gold, platinum, and copper. These minerals must be mined and refined at a tremendous environmental expense. For example, gold mining is one of the most destructive processes to the environment in the world, fouling waterways and destroying natural scenery at an alarming rate.

There is also the energy used to produce the smartphone; not only does the factory need resources such as water and electricity, but those mining the minerals used in the smartphone do too. See how it is all starting to add up pretty quickly? It is bad news for the environment and us.

Making Smartphones Effects on the Environment Worse

Making things worse is that smartphones are being produced at a rapidly increasing rate. This increase in production is due to corporate models such as planned obsolescence, where a product is deliberately designed only to have a short lifespan. Another aspect is advertising, encouraging consumers to upgrade to a shiny new smartphone every few years, even when they don’t need a replacement. 

In 2020, 3.3 billion people owned and used smartphones. 1.38 billion new smartphones were sold that year. That means that around a third of all smartphone users purchased a new smartphone last year.

At a profit of USD 409 billion last year, it is obvious that smartphone manufacturers will not change their corporate models. However, as each new smartphone produced uses more and more non-renewable resources, the profit those companies make results in bigger losses for us and the environment as time goes on.

The Infrastructure Required To Use Smartphones Has More of an Impact Than You Think

The Infrastructure Required To Use Smartphones Has More of an Impact Than You Think
Electricity lightning in servers data center room storage system.

In a study on ICT (Information and Communications Technology) conducted by Lotfi Belkhir, a professor at the W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology, and Ahmed Elmeligi, a graduate of the same school and co-founder of HiNT (Healthcare Innovation in NeuroTechnology). 

The two researchers monitored the environmental impact of personal technology such as computers and smartphones. The results were alarming and Belkhir explains that “ICT will account for as much as 14% of the total global footprint by 2040, or about half of the entire transportation sector worldwide.” What does this mean? ICT is going to have big, negative effects on the environment.

And why is this the case? Well, every time you use a device such as your smartphone to do something like sending a message, there has to be a data center somewhere in the world to process that request. That accounts for a lot of infrastructure in the world that requires a lot of electricity.

E-Waste Is Wreaking Havoc on the Environment – And the People Who Live There

E-waste is a term to describe any electronic waste. Shockingly, more than 40-50 million tons of it are generated per year, 10% of that being smartphones. Despite being full of recoverable, reusable resources and being incredibly harmful to the environment if improperly disposed of, only 16%-20% of e-waste is recycled.

When e-waste is disposed of improperly, it releases toxic pollutants such as mercury and nickel into the environment. This environmental impact has a terrible effect on the natural area and the people living there, such as polluted drinking water and soil, lead poisoning, and birth defects. 

Many so-called recycling facilities in countries like Africa and Southeast Asia amount to little more than people ripping apart electronics with their bare hands for subsistence-level wages. Many of the toxic substances that come from the e-waste leak into our waterways and oceans from areas like these.

U.S. User Smartphones and Manufacturer Environmental Plan Links

U.S. User Smartphones and Manufacturer Environmental Plan Links
U.S. User Smartphones and Manufacturer Environmental Plan Links

Some of the world’s smartphone manufacturers making an attempt at being environmentally conscious and taking action to make their products more sustainable.

Please see our other interesting articles on “What Are Green Electronics?” and “What is Sustainability on an Eco-Friendly Smartphone?” 

How Can We Lessen the Environmental Impact of Smartphones?

It is clear that smartphones are not going to go away anytime soon, nor should they. Smartphones are incredibly valuable, but the way we view them and dispose of them has to change – and sooner rather than later.

Fewer Smartphones Equal Fewer Problems

First of all, we can mitigate many of the environmental problems of smartphones by just manufacturing fewer of them. This philosophy would be a significant change that will not happen overnight, but corporations need to re-evaluate how they are marketing and manufacturing their products. The business model of planned obsolescence needs to go.

We as consumers can also do our part – we don’t “Needto buy a new smartphone every time a new model comes on the market. If we vote with our wallets, choosing to hold on to our phones for longer and trying to repair them instead of buying new ones, corporations will have no choice but to listen.

The Switch to Renewables Is the Best Way Forward

If smartphone companies move towards renewable energy sources to power their operations, much of the environmental impact of smartphones can be lessened. For example, Facebook recently met its 100% renewable energy goal. Its data centers and offices are powered by wind and solar energy sources, and the company is also focused on reducing the amount of power its company requires.

Apple has also made progress since 2019:

“All iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch devices released in the past year are made with recycled content, including 100 percent recycled rare earth elements in the iPhone Taptic Engine — a first for Apple and for any smartphone.”

“Apple decreased its carbon footprint by 4.3 million metric tons in 2019 through design and recycled content innovations in its products. Over the past 11 years, Apple has reduced the average energy needed for product use by 73 percent.”

Apple commits to be 100 percent carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030

If other smartphone companies can follow suit – not just the data centers for the technology we use, but also the actual factories that produce that technology – the sky’s the limit for how environmentally friendly the world can be.

E-Waste Recycling Needs To Get Serious

As previously mentioned, barely any e-waste actually gets recycled. This fact needs to change for two main reasons: less e-waste being dumped will prevent the negative environmental impacts it is causing. More e-waste being recycled means that materials can be recovered and re-used instead of being sought from scratch.

Many people are unaware of the value of recycling their electronic products, but it is a simple thing that saves our planet bit by bit. In the United States, you can drop your old smartphone that you don’t want anymore at places such as Eco-ATM, Eco-Cell, or even Best Buy.

The responsibility is not just on us to make sure that smartphones are getting recycled, however. It is also up to the corporations building smartphones in charge of the recycling efforts to ensure that the job is being done safely and sustainably. Unfortunately, in many cases, it currently is not.

Final Words

The value of smartphones cannot be understated, but neither can their environmental impact. The environmental problems that smartphones and technology cause will not go away overnight. 

By all of us becoming aware of the number of resources that go into production and smartphone usage, we can make better choices as a consumer. This applies to all electronics and making choices to utilize “Green Electronics.”

Still, if we educate ourselves about the issue, we can work together to effect positive change, even if the first steps are only small ones. This can only help sustain future generations on planet earth because not all of us want to move to Mars.


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John Mortensen

As a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, geologist, or scientist. I became a project manager which is involved with many of those things. I am a project manager and tech writer who researches the latest alternative and green technologies. We write helpful articles about green electronics and green technology products. AI, extreme weather, electric vehicles, are all in our future and we want to know the best way to deal with the effects of these on the power grid and emergency preparedness.

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