Why your smart phone is killing the planet and how to make it stop

Who could imagine life without smart phones? They’ve made life SOOOO much easier and while I still marvel at their technology, it has pretty much become the new normal. But unfortunately these wonders of modern tech have a dark side. The companies who bring us the magic conceal an ugly reality behind their clean, cutting-edge image. From dangerous mining practices, hazardous chemicals and poor recycling to excessive energy and resource consumption driven by a business model that counts on us buying a new phone every 2 years, this industry is having a MASSIVE impact on our planet. But by making some better choices WE can turn things around.

What is so wrong with smart phones?

The excessive & unnecessary waste

Over 1.5 billion smart phones are sold each year, which means around the same number is discarded (this could be to landfill, recycling or the back of a drawer). A lot of phones don’t get recycled and even those that do may be harming people and the planet. Only around 15% of e-waste is recycled properly. Most e-waste is processed in countries like China, India and Ghana, where much recycling is unregulated, releasing toxic chemicals and heavy metals into air and waterways and causing significant harm to workers.

Phone waste in Ghana (image: Wikipedia)

I purchased my first smart phone in 2014. I held out as long as I could, so I could squeeze as much life as possible out of my Nokia ‘dumb phone’. Eventually the lure of having internet, email, calendar, music, maps, a great camera and an app for absolutely everything (oh and a phone — almost forgot that) all accessible in one small device became too strong and I succumbed. Having a smart phone has made my life a LOT easier.

But I’ve never understood why many people get a new phone at the end of their two-year contract, when their current phone still works fine. My best guess is some kind of FOMO complex — fear of missing out on the latest technology (which must have horrific implications for one’s social status). The average phone in the United States is used for just over 2 years and at this rate we would use at least 29 phones in our lifetime.

Aside from FOMO-ridden consumers, manufacturers are also responsible for a lot of smart phone waste. Most companies adopt the strategy of planned obsolescence. By making a product difficult (or impossible) to repair or upgrade they shorten its lifespan, forcing us to buy a new phone sooner.

And as well as the plastic in the phone itself, most phone cases are also made from plastic, and even the ones that aren’t are packaged in it. And then there are screen protectors, also mostly plastic (and plastic-packaged). So every time we buy a new phone we’re also creating all this extra demand for more plastic (a material designed to last hundreds of years, to be ditched in two).

Using up valuable and limited resources

Smart phones contain dozens of valuable and finite materials, including rare earth elements and conflict minerals (minerals tied to armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country).

Minerals used to make smart phones like gold and tin have been identified as conflict minerals in countries like DRC (image: Ethical Consumer)

Smart phones also chew up energy resources (and fuel climate change). While they are generally energy efficient to use, smart phones require a lot of energy to manufacture due to their complexity, and this energy is largely the dirty kind like coal.

The toxic chemicals

The hazardous chemicals in electronic products not only cause life-threatening illnesses in factory workers and in those working at poorly-managed e-waste “recycling” operations when these materials are burned (yes, apparently recycling now includes burning), they severely pollute the local environment and OUR local environment when they off-gas into our homes and we unknowingly breathe in the toxic fumes. Despite commitments by several companies to phase out certain toxic chemicals, in 2017 only Apple and Google had eliminated these chemicals.

Ghana’s e-waste scrap yards are causing horrendous pollution: unprotected workers, many young children, inhale toxic smoke from burning materials as they search for metals they can sell (video: Greenpeace)

How you can stop supporting excessive waste, toxic pollution, resource depletion and armed conflict

So we don’t want to give up our smart phones but do we really want to keep funding this sickening destruction of our planet and over-exploitation of poor countries??? Here’s how you can be part of the solution:

  • Find out how your phone ranks. Have a quick look at the Guide to Greener Electronics to see where your smart phone lies within the red-green spectrum. If it’s in the red or orange section, send the manufacturer a quick email asking how and when they are addressing particular issue/s with their products.
  • Choose a high-ranking brand for your next purchase. If you need to purchase a new smart phone (or other electronics) use the guide to choose brands rated green (or at least green-ish). Also, look for brands making repairable/upgradable products (like Fairphone, which announced the first upgradeable smartphone in September 2017).
  • Ask yourself if you REALLY need a new phone. Imagine if we only went through 12 phones (or less) in our lifetime instead of 29? It is unlikely you really need a new phone every time your contract runs out so before you rush out to buy the latest model check in with yourself (honestly) to get clear on whether you REALLY need it. I find smart phones work fine for at least 5 years and the only reason we NEED a new phone (aside from breakage) is when release of the next ‘G’ technology may make our current phone so slow that it is no longer practical to use. If you run out of storage space consider moving some of your photos and videos to external or cloud storage.
  • Reuse. If you need to upgrade your phone but your old phone still works, before recycling it see if you can give it to a friend or family member instead, that way it will get used rather than ending up as waste or cluttering your home.
  • Recycle. Make sure you recycle your old phone at the end of its life, either through the company or your City’s e-waste recycling program.
  • Choose a plastic-free, biodegradable case. Next time you need a new case for your smart phone check out Pela Case — sustainably made and 100% biodegradable (they even make an extra-tough version).
  • Choose a plastic-free, zero waste screen protector. Pela Canopy is a liquid that hardens on your screen increasing its strength by 500x (it comes in a reusable glass vial).
Pela Case — a sustainable, plastic-free smart phone case: durable AND compostable (image: Pela Case).

We should all know more about how our smart phones are made and where they end up. The waste and pollution will only stop if WE start making smarter choices, so why not choose a BETTER world?

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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