Compare and Recycle
02/04/2019

Guide Toward Environmentally Sustainable Smartphones

five pairs of hands holding mobile phones view from underneath

There is no denying that smartphones are leading technological progress within the personal gadget space and have changed our daily lives significantly. Packed with features and connectivity around the clock, smartphones have substituted various personal gadgets and will evolve even more, but is the cost of this evolution too high for the planet we all share? And how can we ensure that we start to shift our focus on what it means to keep our electronics circular, especially our mobile phones and tech we use everyday.

In this article

Our Mobile Phones Cost The Earth

These innovative pieces of technology are possible due to a raw material supply and manufacturing processes that are most times carried out in a non-eco-friendly manner. Currently mobile phones are driving the Earth’s resource consumption to extinction. It was reported that in order to keep up with our current appetite for resources, we would need the equivalent of 1.75 Earths.

Our mobile phones are complex and require 75 out of the nonradioactive 81 elements in the periodic table, 62 of which are metals, to work. Image: Galaxy S20 teardown by iFixit

Modern smartphone contains almost 63 percent of the elements from the periodic table. Those known as the rare Earth metals are particularly important. There are 17 rare Earth metals in total, 16 are required to build an average smartphone. The hidden reality of mobile phones’ production falls down a path of using unsustainable methods and causes environmental pollution, human rights violations and both ecosystem and human life-threatening practices.

Young children work in the cobalt mines to source cobalt for smartphones. Source: SkyNews

An upgrade within the industry is desperately needed

Smartphone technology progresses every year. Processors get faster, cameras and other features get more advanced with every subsequent generation. But the consumerist business model adopted around a century ago has remained unchanged. It stimulates the profits of tech giants and is fuelling climate change. Is it really true nowadays that the more you buy, the more satisfaction you get? We should remember that we all live on the same planet. Try holding your breath while counting your money. How long can you last?

As we mentioned above, understanding and creating awareness about the need for our electronics to have longer lifespans and more people recirculating materials in our tech, ensures that we are in fact minimising e-waste. The part we can play is based on choosing durable products and make sure we refurbish, remanufacture or recycle our unwanted tech or used tech. Of course, we know this is hard to do especially when phones are being made to last only until your next upgrade is due. Prone to scratches and heavy damage once dropped, many of the current phones are hard to repair, and authorised repairs are costly. For the amount a repair costs, you can easily find a brand-new phone. So why even bother? Well, there is one major reason: the production of smartphones has the biggest environmental load. Around 70% to 80% of the carbon footprint during the lifespan of personal computing devices occurs during manufacturing, Greenpeace estimates and Apple confirmed in their recent iPhone reports. The longer you use your mobile phone, the more of its lifetime carbon footprint can be reduced per year. Let's visualise it below.

Comparison of carbon emissions generated if phone upgrades are yearly, every two, three and four years.

Our example looks at 12 years of a phone ownership and breaks the total CO2-e by upgrade cycles. Total CO2-e output depends dramatically on smartphone upgrade cycles. Four or even three year upgrade cycles result in significantly less CO2-e over time than changing your phone as soon as a new model is released. Keeping your phone a year longer amounts to saving 84 kg of CO2-e. If we put it in perspective that's equivalent of charging 10,713 smartphones.

  • This graph assumes a 84 KG of CO2-e is average for the production of a modern smartphone (Environmental Reports 2011-2023, Apple).
  • This graph assumes 8 KG CO2-e is average for each year of using the smartphone (according to Environmental Reports 2011-2023, Apple).
  • This graph assumes the CO2-e for production will remain consistent. There, hopefully, may be efficiencies in the future and more control over mining and extraction of raw materials will be taken by manufacturers and suppliers.
  • The yearly CO2-e output during the use phase of a smartphone may also fall as we move to greener energy production in the homes and more efficiency related modes and features are coming to smartphones.

Manufacturers don't tell us in the ads what raw materials were required to produce the latest and greatest phone and we know why – because we would not buy them that often. Ads communicate the benefits of upgrading and why the new phone is X times better than the one you have now. If we knew the truth about the total cost of our phones, surely we would be more careful while using them and surely we would make more ethical purchase choices. We are the consumers, if we won't buy, there won’t be a demand for dirty phones. We can initiate the change and the time is now!

More mutual effort is required

We are talking corporate actions here, not green-washing with false ‘corporate responsibility’ and ‘environmental sustainability’ claims just to make consumers believe that by buying their electronics we can do something to stop our planet from heating up. Climate change is real, and we need corporations to be green rather than looking green on paper.

Among mobile phones manufacturing companies, Apple is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, but that target is still far away.

Apple, like Google, is not actually 100 percent powered by clean energy, but it uses the term to signal that it buys enough green energy to offset its global power consumption - The Verge

While Samsung’s and other Chinese phone makers' lack of transparency in supply chain, lack of reuse of materials and lack of taking responsibility for end of life collection is alarming, Apple is ‘miles’ ahead with their environmental reports, recycling robots and use of recycled metals. However, the same ambition for accessible repair is also needed from Apple.

The mobile phone market is facing saturation, and according to IDC worldwide smartphone shipments continue to decline. To continue extracting cash from consumers on a yearly basis, tech companies have changed phone designs dramatically. Upgrade cycles are sped up by planned obsolescence, fragile and ‘closed’ design choices and devices being practically un-repairable. This shortens the useful life of otherwise working devices and persuades us to replace our phones earlier than necessary.

Apple and Samsung are going in the wrong direction in terms of sustainable product designs, because they are not ready to ditch their yearly profits. The world needs more repairable and upgradable phones.

Sturdy, repairable and modular Fairphone 3. Fairphone describes its phones as the world's most ethical mobile devices. Image: Fairphone

Guide To Sustainable Smartphones

We understand how durable they can be made and how repairable mobile phones are as we know the exact proportion of broken to working devices by brand of phones that get sold through Compare and Recycle. We also know how much it can cost to replace components and the difficulty of replacing screens, glass backs and internal components.

So Compare and Recycle are well placed to define what makes a phone sustainable, and we can guide you towards owning one.

A sustainable smartphone is a mobile phone that has low lifetime carbon footprint or is carbon neutral, has been designed following circularity principals factoring in efficiency, durability, upgradability, repairability and recyclability, and manufactured using primarily recycled and sustainably sourced materials.

Say you made a genuine decision that it's time for you to buy a new phone. What's next?

Choosing a sustainable smartphone isn't rocket science, but there are a few things to consider. To seriously tackle the issue, we need a radical rethink of the way we purchase and use mobile phones.

There are a few authorities that addressed the environmental challenge of mobile phones and developed their own sustainability standards that evaluate multiple aspects of a smartphone’s lifecycle. UL LLC, global certification and compliance company, partnered with a non-profit organisation Global Electronics Council (GEC) to identify and certify green electronics and make this data available for consumers.

GEC manages the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT ®) which is available online and lists mobile phones that meet UL 110 Standard for Sustainability for Mobile Phones and comply with the ecolabel’s criteria.

EPEAT’s criteria list for mobile phones is extensive and is grouped into the following categories that are broken down further into Required and Optional criteria:

EPEAT® certification criteria. Image: EPEAT

Under its EPEAT ® certification, at the moment of writing there are 55 models from Apple, Samsung and Google registered with a Gold EPEAT® rating. To us, this is too many models getting the highest mark, and the term environmentally-friendly should be seen as the status-quo. Additionally, the criteria should be rewritten to attain the next level of sustainability.

The standard should be hard to reach, driving innovation towards sustainable practices, and EPEAT has previously come under fire for providing Gold certification too easily to manufacturers and models.

Pick refurbished

Consider buying a refurbished phone. It has all the same functionalities and appearance as a brand-new phone, only difference is that it was pre-owned and has been refurbished to meet quality standards. Refurbished phones are barely distinguishable from the same model but new, and they will reduce your carbon footprint and won’t break your bank.

Even popular platforms such as TikTok have recently included a Refurbished Technology category within the TikTok shop. This is a progressive step in the right direction and the fact that TikTok has over a billion users, it is estimated that 39.9% of users will utilise the shop by 2026, according to Environmental Journal.

Relevant reading:

You might not have realised, but design plays a crucial part in how long a smartphone will last. Slim and shiny phones might look stunning, but they are not that practical. For any smartphone to last longer a nice grip is needed, so avoid slippery finishes.

Choose repairable

Whether your choice is refurbished or brand new, focus your search around model options that are repairable or upgradable. It will require a bit of research, but it’s worth it.

Source eco-friendly mobile phone options on iFixit where you will find a list of mobile phones scored by repairability. The website also provides handy DIY repair guides and toolkits that will assist you in fixing your phone without expert knowledge being required. In 2021, a repairability index of electronics became mondatory and is therefore now required to be displayed and communicated to consumers by manufacturers. This law was later adopted by the UK and it is good to see the Right To Repair movement making an impact.

Choose a smaller capacity

In our Smartphone Environmental Report, we have found out that Apple reports the difference between the total greenhouse gas emissions of its iPhones. It can be up to a 41kg of CO2-e difference between the smallest and largest capacity for the latest iPhones.

We were trying to explain the reason behind these gigabytes and CO2-e relations ourselves, but Apple have provided a better comment:

The more memory you have, the more integrated circuits you need. While some efficiencies are realised at higher memory configurations this does result in a higher carbon impact overall – Sam Fulton, Corporate Public Relations at Apple, Europe

iPhones, Google Pixels and presumably all other manufacturers' phones with higher internal storage capacities are less environmentally friendly, but there is a way to reduce the impact, especially when internal storage is not affecting the phone's performance in any way.

When choosing a model's storage capacity, go with the lowest option and (only if extra space is genuinely needed) sign up for cloud storage service. With Apple, you get 5GB of free storage and it’s very easy and relatively cheap to upgrade iCloud, or better yet, be frugal and optimise your internal storage by exporting images and deleting unwanted apps often.

The retail price difference between the iPhone 15 Pro 128GB and 1TB is a considerable £500. Choosing an iPhone 15 Pro with 128GB built in for £999 and opting in for a 200GB iCloud plan that will cost you £2.49 per month is a great solution. Instead of throwing £500 at potentially unnecessary storage space, you can have 120 months of cloud storage subscription, reduce your phone’s carbon emissions and if you do not use all cloud storage, you can share it with your family members.

Buy An Environmentally Endorsed Smartphone

The last Greenpeace Guide To Greener Electronics was published in 2017 where they analysed and summarised the environmental performance of 17 tech companies around the world giving each a grade. The grades are based on main impact areas: Energy Consumption, Natural Resource Consumption and Chemical Elimination from final products. Samsung, Xiaomi, Huawei were doing the least to address their environmental impacts, whereas Fairphone and Apple are leading the industry to go green. So keep this in mind when searching for your next green phone.

Although this guide was published back in 2017, it still holds some relevance so we decided to include it in our blog to give a rough idea of where these tech companies could potentially be positioned in 2024. Better yet, call Greenpeace out on social media so we can hopefully get a refreshed report.

Smartphone manufacturers ranked by their sustainability efforts. Image: Greenpeace data correct as of 2017

As mentioned above, short upgrade cycles are the reason for increasing mobile phone waste. Current upgrade model is only 24 months and a popular method is to sign a pay-monthly contract with a network provider. When choosing a greener phone on a contract, look out for 3 year contracts. Alternatively, keep using your phone after the contract runs out and switch to a SIM only plan. This will not only prolong the useful life of your device, but will also help lower the monthly costs.

How To Use A Smartphone Sustainably

We all should be eco-conscious in everything we do, including our mobile phone usage. The phone you currently own is the greenest one, so extend its lifespan for as long as you can.

A study from Accenture found extending the lifespan of a mobile phone from 18 months to four years could result in a 40% reduction in CO2e emissions.

If taken care of properly, your phone can last up to 7 years. Here are a few tips to become an eco-warrior of smartphone usage.

Tip 1: Get a protective case and screen protector. Check case options by Pela for eco and plastic free cases that won’t harm the environment.

Tip 2: Although current smartphones feature Gorilla Glass 6 (or Victus) to protect from accidental scratches, build quality won’t save you from display-cracking drops. Opt in for insurance to protect yourself from extra spendings and have a guaranteed repair service in case of damage.

Tip 3: Protect your phones from water immersion if it’s not waterproof.

Tip 4: Installing the latest software updates, once available, will keep your smartphone efficient, up to date and protect it against malware. More recently manufacturers are extending OS support for their flagships, with Samsung Galaxy S24 series offering 7 years of support.

Tip 5: Protect your OLED display from screen burn-in. Screen burn-ins happen as a result of irregular pixel usage. The most common causes are idle screen activity, brightness levels set all the way up manually, screen time-out not being set up. The key tricks to increase lifespan of your OLED are auto-brightness turned on, screen timeout set up, choosing solid colours and changing your wallpaper occasionally. Switching to a dark theme or a darker keyboard will also prevent display discolouration.

Relevant reading

Tip 6: Charge your phone with low energy chargers that take 30MW of energy or less. You will not only reduce your carbon emissions, but will also save on energy bills.

If you’re a heavy user consider limiting your smartphone gaming, because playing HDR games or having apps constantly running in the background drains battery that is going to die eventually.

Tip 7: Try having some smartphone detox days. According to The Guardian, carbon emissions are related to how often we use our smartphone and considering that in our lifetime we will own at least 10 of them, that is a lot of CO2. There’s a power-hungry server in a data centre running 24/7 that is making every text message, video download, photo sharing, email or TikTok happen. It is the energy consumption that we don’t see.

Tip 8: Selfies. Selfies. Selfies. We do not use all the pictures we are taking. Out of 50 snaps, you might post one food pic on Instagram. The rest will just stay in your Gallery taking up storage. Organise your gallery and clear out sessions every half a year. Same applies to apps that you have not used for a while.

Relevant reading

Ways To Dispose Of Your Old Smartphone Responsibly

So you bought a new sustainable phone. The next step is to dispose of your old one responsibly.

It was estimated that 57.3 million metric tons of e-waste was produced last year globally, the majority of it being small electronic equipment.

In order to stop this number from increasing by 8% every year, we need to act. One mobile phone, one tablet, one smartwatch… There are 7.7 billion people on our planet. Astonishing 40 million phones are languishing unused around the country, according to BBC. This Everest of discarded mobile devices is a missed opportunity to regain consumer’s spending, combat climate change and address the ICT industry’s increasing carbon footprint.

The e-waste rates aren't the only alarming issue. New research conducted by Compare and Recycle, in collaboration with YouGov, revealed that £17.6 billion in potential savings were lost over 10 years due to Brits neglecting phone trade-ins. This should be a wake up call for all of us to change out habits when it comes to tech, especially our mobile phones. Having a mindset that focuses in the recirculation of our electronic devices, ensures that we never miss out on being able to save or earn money when moving onto our next device, but also makes sure that we do our part in reducing harmful e-waste figures.

Trade it in

We have a wide range of merchants looking to buy your old smartphone, even if it’s broken. By trading in your phone through our website, you can easily compare merchants online and give a second life to your phone as it will be refurbished and resold further.

Sell your Apple iPhone XR nowGet up to £165.00!Sell your Apple iPhone 11 nowGet up to £270.00!

Alternatively, there are buyback programs either with your network provider or manufacturer. For instance, Apple’s GiveBack program is a green way to say goodbye to your old device. Apple will buy your old gadget for money or a gift card.

Recycling

Those traded-in phones that can not be refurbished to a sell-able standard, will be recycled and valuable components will be recovered. In terms of older generation mobile phones, recycling is a great way to not be an e-waster, so reach out to recycling management companies or to your local borough council for advice and do your bit for the planet.

Relevant reading:

Upcycling

If you have a creative mind, upcycling is a fun way to turn your old phones into something useful without wasting them away.

Believe it or not, old phones have enough power to do quite a few things. You can turn your unwanted phone into a feature packed baby monitor and even an action camera or security camera network. As long as you’ve got an old phone and decent Wi-Fi connection, you’re good to go and the internet community is there to help! Some of the ideas found on the internet might be difficult if you are a DIY beginner, but it’s doable.

To conclude

Going green isn't an open book. It’s simply a matter of educating yourself on your practices and your digital product choices and looking beyond 'the green lustre'.

We know it can be overwhelming to think about how your personal carbon footprint contributes to global warming. But the truth is, you can take steps to chip away at your impact on the planet. We all have to start somewhere when it comes to upholding our end of the environmental bargain, but we should always be looking for better alternatives and put a little thought behind every upgrade contract signed or purchase decision we make.

Antonia

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