From Smart to Senseless: The Global Impact of Ten Years of Smartphones

by Elizabeth Jardim

February 26, 2017

Since 2007, more than 7 billion smartphones have been produced. And while smartphones have changed the world in many positive ways, the manufacturing of these gadgets is having devastating impacts on our planet.

Broken Smartphones

Broken displays are a common problem that shorten the lifespan of smartphones.

Smartphones have undeniably changed our lives and the world in a very short amount of time. In 2007, almost no one owned a smartphone. In 2017, they are seemingly everywhere. Globally, among people aged 18-35, nearly 2 in every 3 people own a smartphone.

In just 10 years, more than 7 billion smartphones have been produced.

Click here to download the full report — From Smart to Senseless: The Global Impact of Ten Years of Smartphones

But as smartphones have spread across the world, the rapid churn of devices that is fueling record profits across the technology sector is also causing an ever-widening impact on the planet and the countries where these devices are manufactured.

Despite tremendous innovation in the functionality of the phones themselves, product design and supply chain decisions continue to suffer from the same not-so-smart linear manufacturing model and short-term profit-driven perspective that have plagued the IT sector for years:

  • Miners in remote landscapes conduct the life-threatening work of extracting precious metals for these devices; often fueling armed conflict in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and leaving the land destroyed;
  • Workers in electronics factories are unknowingly exposed to hazardous chemicals that damage their health;
  • Increasing device complexity means greater amounts of energy is required to produce each phone, which in turns increases demand for coal and other forms of dirty energy in China and other parts of Asia;
  • Insufficient of product take-back and reuse of materials further contributes to a rapidly growing e-waste stream.

All this for a gadget that the average consumer in the United States uses for just over two years.

And sadly, the problems with smartphones do not end when a consumer is ready to repair or upgrade their phone.

Major smartphone manufacturers are increasingly making product design decisions that take away an individual’s ability to replace the battery or add more memory. As a result, all the resources, energy, and human effort expended to make each phone are wasted, if the phone is damaged, needs a new battery, or the user outgrows the storage capacity. This greatly reduces the lifespan of the product and drives demand for new products and maximum profit.

In this report we quantify the resource and energy impacts of a decade of smartphone production. Findings include:

  • 7.1 billion smartphones have been produced ​since 2007.
  • More than 60 different elements are commonly used in the manufacturing of smartphones. While the amount of each element in a single device may seem small, the combined impacts of mining and processing these precious materials for 7 billion devices is significant.
  • Since 2007, roughly 968 TWh has been used to manufacture smartphones, which is nearly the same as one year’s power supply for India (973 TWh in 2014).
  • Only two (Fairphone and LG G5) of 13 models reviewed had easily replaceable batteries. This means consumers are forced to replace their whole devices when the battery life starts to dwindle.
  • In 2014 alone, e-waste from small IT products like smartphones was estimated to be 3 million metric tons. Less than an estimated 16 percent of global e-waste is recycled.
  • At end-of-life, current design makes disassembly difficult, including the use of proprietary screws and glued in batteries; therefore, smartphones are often shredded and sent for smelting when “recycled.” Given the small amounts of a wide diversity of materials and substances in small devices, smelting is inefficient, or ineffective, at recovering many of the materials.

We are calling for a new business model, in which smartphone manufacturers take into account the impacts their popular devices are having on our planet, and the desire of consumers to slow down the rate of phones they go through in a decade.

Manufacturers should measure their innovation not by fewer millimeters and more megapixels, but by designing  devices to last, by making them easily repairable and upgradeable, and using components and materials that can safely be reused again and again to make new phones.

Elizabeth Jardim

By Elizabeth Jardim

Elizabeth Jardim is a corporate campaigner for Greenpeace USA. Her work is focused on pushing the IT sector to adopt renewable energy and more sustainable manufacturing practices.

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