Smartphones and the Environment

As Earth Day comes and goes this week, many of us will think about how our choices affect the planet. We might think about our home energy usage, our consumption of goods, our automobile’s fuel economy or even our food choices. From the impacts of industrial farming to the amount of garbage we generate, many of us are taking a fresh look at how our habits impact the planet. However, environmental impacts can come from the smallest of places. In fact, one of the fastest-growing sources of pollution might come from the very thing you’re using to read this article — your smartphone.

Research into the environmental impacts of laptops, tablets, desktop computers and smartphones is limited, but it’s out there. For example, two men associated with McCaster University’s W. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology in Canada (i.e., a professor and an alumnus) recently released a study on the environmental impacts of computers and smartphones.

Lotfi Belkir and Ahmed Elmeligi recently studied the carbon footprint of these consumer devices, as well as the data centers and communication networks on which these devices rely. They looked at data going back to 2005 and published their findings in the 2018 Journal of Cleaner Production. There report, “Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations,” shines light on how our use of technology affects the planet.

Greenhouse gas emissions
When you look at your smartphone, you probably don’t consider it a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE). However, you probably aren’t looking at the whole picture. It takes more than a battery to deliver content to your smartphone. To use search engines, summon voice assistants, run apps and post to social media, your smartphone relies on armies of servers in far-flung locations. This supporting infrastructure uses a lot of energy.

According to Belkhir’s and Elmeligi’s report, devices in the information and communication industry currently generate approximately 1.6% of worldwide GHGE (including device production and use). They project the industry will contribute about 14 percent of emissions by 2040 — more than half the current relative contribution of the whole transportation sector — if nothing changes. More surprisingly, they also posit that by 2020, the GHGE footprint of smartphones alone will surpass the individual contributions of desktops, laptops and digital displays.

Precious and rare metals
A smartphone’s environmental impact doesn’t start or end with GHGE. Smartphones are a veritable treasure trove of valuable materials. They contain precious metals such as gold, silver and palladium. They also contain copper, as well as a number of rare earth elements such as yttrium, lanthanum, terbium, neodymium, gadolinium and praseodymium, which are plentiful but extremely difficult and costly to mine and extract. In 2018, there are 3.3 billion active smartphones in the world, and this adoption trend shows no signs of slowing down. That means more mining in our earth’s future.

Recycling options
If you’ve ever had the urge to throw away a smartphone or other electronic device, please let the following statistic set in. Electronic waste makes up 2 percent of landfill contents, but it accounts for 70 percent of all toxic waste found in landfills. This sobering statistic makes recycling seem like the best option, but it isn’t quite that simple.

Smartphones aren’t easy to recycle. It’s much easier for businesses to refurbish phones and sell them on the secondary market, and that’s what reputable recycling operations do. If phones can’t be refurbished and resold, they can be recycled. However, removing precious and rare metals from smartphones has numerous negative environmental impacts, because removing these elements requires recyclers to shred the phones, remove the metals in bulk, and then smelt them.

This is hazardous business even when done properly, but in developing nations, where removal is often performed via unsafe means, the environmental and personal toll is much worse. Researchers are looking for better ways to recycle smartphones and computers that aren’t as harmful to people or the environment. However, these technologies to save us from our technology are still emerging.

What’s the earth-friendly thing to do?
Until the technology and processes to safely dispose of our smartphones become viable, there are a few things we can all do to reduce the environmental toll: we can wait a little longer to upgrade our phones; we can donate or sell our phones to reputable business that resell them on secondary markets; and we can keep them out of landfills. The earth’s resources are finite, and our hunger for technology should be as well.

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