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?
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 Earth’s resource consumption to an extinction. It was reported last year that in order to keep up with our current appetite for resources, we would need the equivalent of 1.7 Earths.
It takes a lot of different materials to make those little 120 gram, pocket-sized computers work. 62 metals to be exact and all of them are irreplaceable, researchers from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies found out. The hidden reality of mobile phones’ production is far behind sustainable choices and involves environmental pollution, human rights violations and both ecosystem and human life-threatening practices.
An upgrade within the industry is desperately needed
Phones get upgraded every year or half a 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?
The 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 repair costs, you can easily find a brand-new phone. So why to even bother? Well, there is one major reason: the production of these products 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. The longer you use your device, the more of its lifetime carbon footprint can be reduced per year. Let us visualise this below.
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 75 kg of CO2-e. If we put it in perspective that's 150 days worth of 6 minute-long showers.
- This graph assumes a 75 KG of CO2-e is average for the production of a modern smartphone (Environmental Reports 2011-2018, Apple).
- This graph assumes a 5 KG CO2-e is average for each year of using the smartphone (according to EPA, 2017).
- 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 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 device 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 at what total cost our phones come to life, 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 reduce its carbon emissions by switching to renewable energy, but the 100% target is still far away. While other companies are gaining global market share, they are losing in green commitment.
Samsung’s and Huawei’s 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 ahead of the game with their environmental reports, recycling robots and use of renewable energy, the same ambition for accessible repair is also needed.
Worldwide smartphones shipments have dropped 4.9% in 2018, according to IDC. The mobile phone market is facing saturation worldwide and 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.
Guide to sustainable smartphones
What is a sustainable smart-phone?
We understand how durable they can be made and how repairable mobile phones are as we know the exact proportion of broken:working devices by brand of phones that get sold through our site. 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 factors make a phone sustainable, so we can guide you towards owning one.
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 Green 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:
To date, there are 18 models from 3 companies registered with a Gold EPEAT® rating. To us, this is too many models getting the highest mark. And the current level, environmentally-friendly term should be seen as the status-quo and 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.
Choosing a sustainable phone
To seriously tackle the issue, we need a radical rethink of the way we purchase and use mobile phones.
Say you made a genuine decision that it’s time for you to buy a new phone. What’s next?
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 same model but new and they will reduce your carbon footprint and won’t break your bank.
You might have never thought, but design plays 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.
Whether your choice will be refurbished or brand new, focus your search around model options that are repairable or upgradable. It will require a bit of digging in, but it’s so 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 tool kits that will assist you in fixing your phone without expert knowledge being required.
In our Smartphone Environmental Report conducted earlier last year, we have found out that Apple reports the difference between the total greenhouse gas emissions of its iPhones. It can be a 29 kg of CO2-e difference between the smallest and largest capacity for all the latest iPhones.
We were trying to explain the reason behind these gigabytes and CO2-e relations ourselves, but we have reached out to Apple for a comment:
iPhones (and presumably all other phone models) 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 phone’s performance in any way.
When choosing model’s storage capacity, go with a 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.
Fears of running out of space are pushing us to choose higher GB, but pause for a second and do a bit of math. The retail price difference between the iPhone XS 64GB and 512GB is a considerable £350. Going with the basic XS with 64GB built in for £999 and choosing 200GB iCloud plan that will cost you £2.49 per month is a great solution. Instead of throwing £350 at potentially unnecessary storage space, you can have 140 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.
Companies that offer greener phones
Greenpeace have done a detailed Guide To Greener Electronics where they have analysed and summarised 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 are 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.
As mentioned above, short upgrade cycles are the reason for increasing mobile phone waste. Current upgrade model is only 24 months and most of us sign a pay-monthly contract with a network provider. When choosing a greener phone on a contract, look out for 3 year contracts. This will not only prolong the useful life of your device, but will also help lower the monthly costs.
Using your current phone sustainably
The world is in need of 7.7 billion eco-conscious people in everything they do, including their mobile phone usage. The phone you currently own is the greenest one, so extend its lifespan for as long as you can. Just by continuing to use your phone for 4 years instead of 18 months can decrease its environmental impact by 40%. 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 cases that won’t harm the environment.
Tip 2: Although current smartphones feature Gorilla Glass 5 to protect from accidental scratches, build quality won’t save you from display-cracking drops. Opt in for an 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 latest software updates once available will keep your smartphone up to date and also protect it against malware.
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 time out set up, choosing solid colours and changing your wallpaper occasionally. Switching to a dark theme or a darker keyboard will also prevent display discolouration.
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 SnapChat 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 gallery and clear out sessions every half a year. Same applies to apps that you have not used for a while.
Tip 9: Since 2010 Greenpeace have been calling on major internet companies to switch to renewable energy so the apps we use on the daily basis are 'click clean'. Check report's findings and various internet company scores to see if your favourite messaging or video streaming app is green or if you should switch to a more eco-friendly alternative.
Responsible end-of-life solutions
So you bought a new sustainable phone. The next step is to dispose of your old one responsibly.
It was predicted that almost 50 million metric tons of e-waste was produced last year globally, majority is from 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 125 million phones are languishing unused around the country, according to Green Alliance. 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.
There is a myriad 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.
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 gift card.
Those traded-in phones that can not be refurbished to a sale-able standard, will be recycled and all valuable components will be recovered. In terms of older generation mobile phones, recycling is a great way to not be e-waster, so reach out to recycling management companies or to your local borough council for advice and do your bit for the planet.
If you have a creative mind, upcycling is a fun way to turn your old phones into something useful without wasting them away.
Samsung is working on their Upcycling online hub where you can meet other DIY enthusiasts and share upcycling practices or source inspiration. A feature packed fish tank, universal remote control or a security cam network these are just a few examples how you can dive into a geeky DIY project and re-purpose your old phone.
One of our favourites is definitely a pre-iPhone era phone turned into a smartwatch. Might be difficult if you are a DIY beginner, but it’s doable.
We would not say that going green is 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. 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.