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Smartphone upgrade season shows negligence and hypocrisy of consumers

Net Results: Use your smartphone for seven years to reduce its environmental impact

In an environmentally tragic update to mists and mellow fruitfulness, autumn is also now the season of new smartphone launches. The pre-hype begins in summer and then, as the leaves begin to fall, so too do the bank accounts of millions of people who will fork out a cool grand, or sign on to a costly new smartphone contract, to have the latest handsets in their pocket.

Thus do handset vendors encourage one of the more irresponsible technology rituals, that of promoting the environmental waste and damage created by totally unnecessary smartphone replacements on a schedule that artificially truncates the lifetime of such a costly purchase.

But in the name of glitzy ads hyping minor increases to battery life, or tweaks to camera settings most people will never use, millions of handsets are junked into landfill or the back of a desk drawer – handsets full of potentially recyclable materials that include metals carrying steep ethical and environmental costs.

A lot of people who say they care about the environment nonetheless nab a new phone upgrade every time their phone contract expires. Yet, at seven years, a smartphone has a lifespan double that of a laptop, and people also could save significantly on bills by using the phone they own, when their two-year contract ends, on a SIM-only deal.


Lease-purchase waste

But in an expensive and environmentally damaging lockstep, handset-makers, phone vendors and network operators blur out that option with the autumnal hard sell of new handsets and fresh two-year contracts. Soon, we’ll be bombarded with Black Friday and holiday marketing from all sides, encouraging us to buy new handsets outright or on contract recommitments. A contract which is, essentially, the smartphone variation on a car lease-purchase, except that when we pay off the handset in full after two years on an expensive contract, we ludicrously discard our device. That’s like abandoning your fully paid-off car at the kerb, and heading straight to the dealers to get another on a fresh lease-purchase commitment.

When UK consumer advocates Which? recently surveyed people about what they do with their old tech, a modest 3 per cent admitted they threw away their handsets (compared to 35 per cent of inkjet printers). But 34 per cent shoved their old smartphones into a drawer, the highest proportion of pointless disuse across six categories of electronic device.

Many environmentalists view smartphones as the single most problematical device because of this brief lifespan, encouraged by manufacturers and network operators. Smartphones are the most popular consumer device, and about half of Europeans surveyed acquire a new handset every 18 months, say analysts Deloitte. Some 4.5 billion smartphones are in global use, with a massive 1.5 billion new handsets predicted to be shipped in 2022, an indication of high device turnover.

The bulk of a phone’s carbon dioxide emissions – 83 per cent according to Deloitte – is incurred during manufacture, shipping and first-year use. Smartphones are expected to emit 146 million tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent emissions (CO2e) this year. That’s “just” half a per cent of total global emissions, but that’s for only one device category whose carbon impact could be slashed if people used handsets longer.

Blood metals

Some researchers argue that emissions analysis for smartphones is generally poor and that smartphones alone, from production to usage, probably have the highest emissions of all devices, exceeding the combined total for desktops, laptops and computer displays.

Human costs are also significant. Phone production demands the use of about 60 metals, including 16 of the 17 rare earth metals, “each contributing to a whole swathe of socio-economic and environmental effects”, says Some are “blood metals”: elements like cobalt, a key metal in lithium-ion batteries, are at the centre of well-documented human exploitation and conflict. Others are mined in toxic settings by the world’s poor.

Then there are the environmental costs. Some 34kg of rock must be excavated to produce just 100g of metal, scarring ecosystems. Mining gold and tin, both required for smartphones, is devastating the Peruvian Amazon and forests in Indonesia.

Mining for iron, aluminium and copper – 40 per cent of the metals by weight in a handset – generate toxic mine tailings implicated in catastrophic spills. Dredging seabeds for tin is destroying coral reefs. Plans are afoot to drag the sea bottom for rare-metal rocks.

Recycling is only a part-answer. Definitely don’t toss your phone – in landfill, it can leach poisonous elements. But only 15 per cent of global consumers recycle smartphones as is, and as components are tiny and fiddly, currently only about 30 per cent of reusable materials are recoverable.

Be sure to recycle or resell. But, far better, aim to use your phone longer, ideally seven years (for maximum reduction in environmental impact, says Which?). When you buy, opt for refurbished rather than new. And for a change, consider giving the planet a gift this year: plug your ears against the siren call of this autumn’s unneeded and self-indulgent phone upgrade.