As you know, recycling is not only in our name, it is in our nature. We understand the importance of looking after our planet, and are slowly learning the impact of smartphones, and what we can do to help as a company so ingrained into the recycling of old tech.

Mobile phones are easy to tuck away and hide in drawers, guarded by a thin slice of nostalgia or a perceived (but barely ever realised) future usefulness. And understanding the environmental impact of a single smartphone is key to recognising the importance of recycling or reusing.

Statistics for the carbon footprint of a smartphone are hard to find as they are difficult to quantify. Apple does a good job in accounting for the emissions in the process, and we would like to see this replicated across the industry. It may seem as though we are singling Apple in this article, but we want to take a moment to commend that they are publishing this data!

The real-world effects of the mining and creation of the elements that go into a mobile device are often heavily guarded. But there are some factors that can be agreed upon in the mining, distribution, infrastructure and recovery of the materials that contribute to the lifetime carbon footprint of a smartphone device.

MINING

There are as many as 60 elements in a smartphone, each contributing to a whole swathe of socio-economic and environmental effects coming from the places of which they are mined.

Most elements are conveniently mined in the same place that they are refined and turned into useful materials, and that is in China.

The demand for all of the elements needed in the build of smartphone components has soared in recent years. Not only due to smartphone ownership, but with the frequency that these smartphones are updated, causing a huge demand for some of the rare earth elements and raw materials, resulting some to be re-classified within the European Commission as “Critical”.

In addition to the mines in China, many of the metals mined in small quantities in Africa, where infrastructure and worker welfare isn’t as well regulated as it is in even China. In countries where there are additional socio-political factors, more needs to be done in the way of regulating environmental, and personal, welfare in the mining process.

There’s no disputing that mining precious materials displaces a lot of rock in the process. In order to remove 100g of required material, 34kg of rock needs to be mined, when this is scaled up to the millions of phones created a year, the amount of damage being done is enormous.

MANUFACTURE AND DISTRIBUTION

It is agreed by many researches (sources at the end of the article) that the majority of the impact of the mobile device comes during the manufacture 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 mobile phone.

Studies by Helman in 2013 and Suckling and Lee in 2015 put the production emissions of a device between 40kg and 80kg of CO2-e (Carbon Dioxide equivalent).

This specific data on the breakdown is very limited and will be different depending on the make and model of the phone, but the trend shows a rising CO2-e of each shipped device;

Apple release their data in the name of transparency in their environmental responsibility report, and you can see how much of their total carbon emissions come from the manufacture process of their (latest) mobile phones;

The average contract and useful life of a smartphone is built into a profitable 2 year cycle. There is a huge demand for new devices and subsequently each year more devices are being produced.

If we look at the total expected CO2-e of the iPhone, we can see that not much has actually changed to lower the total impact of each iPhone brought to market.

The iPhone SE is still the most environmentally friendly of the iPhones. And digging deeper into the total CO2-e cost of the different iPhone capacities, there is a huge difference in emissions depending on the capacity within the phone.

Looking at the latest environmental report for the iPhone XS and the XS Max, the difference between the total greenhouse gas emissions can be 39 kg of CO2-e between the smallest and largest capacity for all the latest iPhones;

iPhone XS Lifetime Emissions

iPhone XS Max Lifetime Emissions

The iPhone XS Max has slightly higher emissions per phone as you would expect with a bigger phone, but the trend of higher emissions on higher capacities is alarmingly consistent.

iPhone XR Lifetime Emissions

The iPhone XR follows a similar trend, albeit with slightly lower total values;

We have written to Apple to try and get some further information about exactly why the carbon footprint is so dramatically higher for larger capacity iPhones, at the time of publishing this post, no reply has been received.

USAGE AND INFRASTRUCTURE

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. Whilst this isn’t nearly as much as the emissions from the manufacturing of the device, it should be recognised that these do contribute to the growth in emissions from using the smartphone.

Normal usage of a smartphone equates to between 4.5kg and 5.25kg of CO2-e a year.

The number of datacentres around the globe is growing and the reliance of web services and data storage has resulted in huge data warehouses being built.

Companies like Google have promised to ensure that all of their data-centres are run on 100% renewable energy as have Facebook. The cost of renewable energy per kW/h reduces, yearly carbon emissions of a device drop subsequently, and the same effect will occur from an increasing adoption in home generated renewable energy.

Whilst these emissions 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 lifecycle, so aren’t spread out as much.
There are around 49 million smartphone users in the UK according to Statista and 3 billion smartphones worldwide.

This doesn’t include the huge amount of aging mobile phones found within drawers and estimates put the figure at 125 million smartphones in drawers and cupboards, forgotten about and with little value, these are more likely to end up in a bin rather than responsibly recycled.

RECYCLING, RECOVERY AND THE URBAN MINE

Recovering recyclable materials from mobile phones is a huge challenge, because the economics of collecting such a wide array of materials from such a variety of different handsets makes it hard for companies to specialise in.

The average modern phone weighs between 150 and 200 grams and is a complex mix mash 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.

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 look to take to reduce our environmental impact through our smartphone use:

  • keep your handset for longer than the average two-year cycle, the longer you keep your device, the less the CO2-e will be per year of ownership
  • buy refurbished to prolong the age of a mobile handset
  • sell on or pass your phone forward when you are finished with it to prolong the usable life of the phone
  • keep it insured – a broken phone has limited usability, if you have it insured, repair is heavily discounted further pro-longing the life of your phone.

Compare and Recycle Recommendations to the Industry

Environmental responsibility needs to be led by the corporations involved in producing these instruments of our daily lives. These 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 smartphone 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 to their manufacturers instead of disposed of by the consumer.

#GreenTuesday 27th of November

With Christmas coming up, it’s easy to shift into spending mode, buying gifts for friends and family. But for every new piece of tech being bought, there is probably an old piece of tech being relegated to the cupboards and drawers.

Black Friday is the biggest consumer spending holiday, so we are trying to raise awareness, not to discourage buying new things, but to remember to recycle your old things amidst the excitement of shiny new tech.

Green Tuesday this year will fall on the 27th of November.

Further Reading

Here are a few of the studies and publications we have used in this blog post and some further information about Apple’s recycling processes.

Lofti Belkhir, Ahmed Elmeligi - Assessing ICT global emissions footprint

Liam - An Innovation Story

James Suckling and Jacquetta Lee - Redefining Scope: The True Environmental Impact of Smartphones

Apple Environmental Reports

Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics