Compare and Recycle
06/11/2018

The Environmental Impact of Your Smartphone

Fingertips holding a mobile phone from which industrial plant emerges

Over the past years, smartphone manufacturers have taken different approaches at minimising carbon emissions of their products, from moving to zero plastic packaging, to abandoning charging adapters, to using recycled gold and aluminium. While manufacturers are aware of the environmental toll of their flagships and some are actively reporting on it, for the general public it is hard to find, and more often than not to decipher the environmental impact of the smartphone they are using every day.

Editor’s note: Originally published in 2018, the article is updated as new research and information on environmental impact and carbon footprint of a smartphone becomes available.

In this article:

As the number of mobile phones worldwide grows, it is estimated that by 2025 it will reach 18.22 billion (1). Our predictions are that such an amount of mobile phones in circulation will generate 1315.48 megatons of CO2-equivalent (2). A single smartphone’s environmental impact varies between 45-120kg of carbon dioxide which depends on the model, build and specifications. But how does such a small device, that weighs less than 200g, come with up to 120kg of carbon footprint?

The real-world effects of smartphone production, the mining and creation of the components that go into it, are often heavily guarded. Despite this, there are certain factors that researchers have agreed upon in the mining, distribution, use of mobile phones and recovery of the materials that make up the lifetime carbon footprint of a smartphone and hence its impact on the environment. But its environmental impact originates long before mining for materials or manufacturing parts, it starts with design.

Design: Creation of a smartphone determines its likely carbon footprint

Studies indicate that the design phase of a product may have a significant influence, accounting for up to 80% of its environmental impact (3). Which is rightly so, because during the design and development phase, crucial decisions are made about functionality, computing power, build materials, durability, recyclability and efficiency of a smartphone that will make up its carbon footprint.

In a span of 10 years, we witnessed a prevailing shift in the design of smartphones, which favours the use of premium materials and glued in batteries over the previously popular plastics and removable batteries. The race towards premium-feel smartphones that can justify £1000 price tags, has resulted in a growing need for metals like stainless steel, aluminium, and even titanium.

Every so often, manufacturers turn to specialty ceramics and reinforced glass to offer new finishes. There’s no doubt that holding a smartphone that has a stainless steel body feels much nicer in the hand than that made of cheap plastic. But these premium materials come with a significantly higher climate impact, up to ten times more, than polycarbonate and polypropylene due to differences in energy consumption to manufacture components from said materials. With emergence of newer smartphone generations, which feature larger screens, foldable displays and more advanced chipsets, the environmental impact is further amplified (4).

Mining: Sourcing materials for smartphones has its cost

There are as many as 62 elements in a modern smartphone, each contributing to a whole swathe of socio-economic and environmental effects on places and ecosystems where they are mined. There’s no disputing that mining precious materials displaces a lot of rock in the process causing devastation. In order to extract metals required to build a single mobile phone, 10-15kg of rock needs to be mined (5). When this is scaled up to the millions of phones produced a year, the amount of damage being done is enormous.

Source: Friends of the Earth

Relevant reading:

The demand for all of the elements needed in the build of smartphone components has soared in recent years. Not only due to accelerating smartphone ownership rates, but with the frequency that these smartphones are updated, causing a huge demand for some of the rare earth elements and raw materials which resulted in some to be re-classified within the European Commission as “Critical” or “Endangered”. In addition to the mines in China, many of the metals are mined in Africa where infrastructure and worker welfare isn’t regulated as it is even in China. In countries where there are additional socio-political factors, governments and big tech need to do more in the way of regulating environmental and personal welfare in the mining process.

This means that concentration-wise, a phone has 100 times more gold – or 10 times more tungsten – than a mineral resource geologists would call ‘high-grade’. - Plymouth University, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

With smartphones being packed with precious elements, ‘mining’ obsolete devices and retrieving metals from existing phones rather than digging those up from the earth is logically the only way forward for the smartphone industry.

Manufacturing and distribution: Making smartphones is a carbon-intensive affair

It is agreed by many researchers (sources at the end of the article) that the majority of the impact of the mobile phone is created during the manufacturing and distribution, where up to 90% of the total emissions of a device originate from. That's a considerable proportion of the overall impact of a smartphone. Studies by Helman in 2013 and Suckling and Lee in 2015 estimate the production emissions of a mobile phone to be between 40kg and 80kg of CO2-e. Annual iPhone Environmental reports published by Apple in the name of transparency confirm that the lion’s share of environmental impact is generated during production which varies greatly depending on the internal storage capacity of the iPhone.

This specific data on carbon dioxide that each phone comes packaged with is becoming more accessible, but its disclosure is at the manufacturer’s discretion. Looking at the lifetime carbon footprint of several iPhone generations, we can see that not much has actually changed to lower the manufacturing impact of each iPhone brought to market. The most recent Galaxy S23 Ultra’s production makes up 85.3% of its total carbon footprint (6) of 70.6kg of CO2-e, but Samsung does not account for the impact of the ‘Sourcing’ stage which is likely to add a few kilograms.

After components have been manufactured and assembled into their final shape, smartphones are distributed around the world which usually accounts for 2-6% of their lifetime carbon footprint. From known smartphone manufacturers reporting on the climate impact of their mobile phones, Samsung’s distribution methods seem to have the largest share of environmental impact, compared to smartphones made by Apple and Google.

Relevant reading:

Usage and infrastructure: Charging and making phone calls - it all adds up

In the process of using the phone, recharging and communicating with the networks, the mobile device will be responsible for an additional amount of emissions generated. Whilst this isn’t nearly as much as the emissions from the manufacturing of the smartphone itself, it should be recognised that these do contribute to the growth in emissions from using the smartphone.

In their environmental reports manufacturers count charging a smartphone’s battery as ‘Use’. Depending on how energy efficient the battery and software management of the battery usage is, the less emissions will be generated by ‘using’ the phone. It can be anywhere between 8-30% of the smartphone’s total carbon footprint. For example, for iPhone 14 it is reported that emissions created in use phase are at 29.5kg of CO2-e (or 9.8kg of CO2-e per year over a period of 3 years), whereas Pixel 7 Pro only generates 14.11kg of CO2-e (or 4.7kg of CO2-e annually for a period of 3 years). So we can safely estimate that ‘usage’ of a smartphone equates to between 4.5kg and 10kg of CO2-e a year.

But the use of a smartphone isn’t limited to charging only. We make calls, send messages and emails, share images, browse the internet and much more. Each activity adds to that basic need of charging your smartphone and quantifying total carbon dioxide emissions of actually using a mobile phone is challenging as it depends on individual usage patterns and the mobile network your phone is connected to. The research done by Ericsson on a Sony Z5 concluded that after including network operation in the use of a smartphone its annual use phase carbon emissions increased by 226% (7).

The number of data centres around the globe is growing and the reliance on web services and data storage has resulted in gigantic data warehouses being built to support connectivity of mobile phones. It is estimated that monthly data consumption per smartphone will exceed 19GB (8) with video format of content reaching 80%. It will be more important than ever to accelerate modernisation of mobile networks and infrastructures with energy-efficiency and reduction of heat emissions in mind.

Whilst the emissions from using mobile phones are not as high as the yearly usage of desktop computers, laptops and monitors, the projected growth in smartphone adoption and regularity of upgrade exacerbates the problem where the environmental impact is heavily weighted towards the beginning of the phone’s lifecycle, so aren’t spread out as much. There are around 64.48 million smartphone users in the UK according to Statista and billions of smartphones worldwide.

This doesn’t include the huge amount of ageing mobile phones found within drawers and most recent estimates put the figure at 15 million mobile phones (9) sitting around UK homes, forgotten about and with little value to the owner. But there’s an enormous value in them to the environment as there’s the potential of curbing our reliance on virgin metals.

End of life: Material recovery is key

Recovering recyclable materials from mobile phones is a huge challenge to this day, because the economics of collecting such a wide array of materials from such a variety of different handsets with various design specifications makes it hard for recycling companies to specialise in. Especially when recyclability isn’t factored into the design of the smartphone.

The average modern phone weighs between 150 and 200 grams and is a complex mix of rare materials that changes every year in ratios, quantities and composition. Meaning a recycling company couldn’t possibly build a sustainable business recycling these raw materials as manufacturers keep their techniques closely under wraps. Such constraints are limiting the scalability of urban mining.

Apple have created their own recycling robots that take iPhone components apart for reuse and there are projects looking at innovative collection and recovery methods of the components of electrical items to recover "critical" components, but this is a slow and expensive process.

Compare and Recycle recommendations to the consumer

There are some simple steps we can take to reduce our environmental impact through our smartphone use:

  • When shopping for your next mobile phone, pay attention to its eco-rating and consider getting a lower storage capacity model as it has a smaller carbon footprint.
  • Buy refurbished mobile phones instead of brand new to prolong the use stage of an already manufactured handset.
  • Get insurance – a broken phone has limited usability, if you have it insured, repair is heavily discounted further prolonging the life of your phone.
  • Keep your smartphone for longer than the average two-year cycle. The longer you keep your mobile phone, the less carbon emissions will be per year of the ownership as the initial carbon footprint will be spread out over the years.
  • Sell on or hand your phone down when you’ve got a replacement to keep it in circulation for longer.

Compare and Recycle recommendations to the industry

Environmental responsibility needs to be led by the corporations involved in producing these pocket-sized computers. Our recommendations, put forward with assistance of Dr. Lofti Belkhir, would help to close the loop between recycling processes and manufacturing:

  • Publicise the amount of recyclable and recoverable material in a device to allow consumers to make a purchase decision based on environmental impact.
  • Work with projects such as Critical Raw Material Recovery to enhance the recovery of raw materials.
  • Redesign the devices to be full-value recyclable and enable a closed-loop manufacturing process. (Note: this is something that Apple is now investing in with Liam and Daisy, but requires a significant amount of R&D)
  • Work with telecom companies to offer extended phone plans (3-5 years) for high-end smartphones but at a much lower cost for consumers.
  • Rethink the business model of selling the phones and instead develop “lease models” that ensure the phones are returned instead of disposed of by the consumer. (Note: phone rental services are becoming available in the UK, but majority of them are not financially viable as monthly payments turn out to be more expensive than contract models or outright purchases)

References:

(1) Statista, Forecast number of mobile devices worldwide from 2020 to 2025. Available here.

(2) We have used publicly available reports to calculate this estimate. The figures of CO2-e emissions per device used were those of iPhone 14 (see: Apple, iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Plus Product Environmental Report, accessed on May 30, 2023), Galaxy S23 Ultra (see: Samsung, Product Environmental Report, Galaxy S23 Ultra, accessed on May 30, 2023), Pixel 7 Pro (see: Google, Product Pixel 7 Pro Environmental Report, accessed on May 30, 2023). The carbon footprint of the above models was averaged and combined with the forecast number of mobile devices worldwide from 2020 to 2025 data by Statista.

(3) Maja van der Velden, M. B. Taylor, 2017 - Sustainability Hotspots Analysis of the Mobile Phone Lifecycle. University of Oslo. Available here.

(4) David Watson, Anja Charlotte Gylling, Naoko Tojo, Harald Throne-Holst , Bjørn Bauer and Leonidas Milios, 2017 - Circular Business Models in the Mobile Phone Industry. Available here.

(5) University of Plymouth, 2019 - Scientists use a blender to reveal what’s in our smartphones. Available here.

(6) Samsung, 2023 - Product Environmental Report Galaxy S23 Ultra. Available here.

(7) Ercan, Mine & Malmodin, Jens & Bergmark, Pernilla & Kimfalk, Emma & Nilsson, Ellinor, 2016 - Life Cycle Assessment of a Smartphone. Available here.

(8) Ericsson, 2022 - Ericsson Mobility Report. Available here.

(9) Virgin Media O2, 2022 - Virgin Media O2 research reveals 15 million phones stashed in the attic as it launches £500,000 e-waste fund. Available here.

Lofti Belkhir, Ahmed Elmeligi, 2018 - Assessing ICT global emissions footprint. Available here.

Apple, 2016 - Liam - An Innovation Story. Available here.

James Suckling and Jacquetta Lee, 2015 - Redefining Scope: The True Environmental Impact of Smartphones. Available here.

Apple Environmental Reports. Available here.

Greenpeace, 2017 - Guide to Greener Electronics. Available here.

Antonia

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