Is It Really Good to Talk? – The Environmental Impact of Mobile Phones

environmental impact of mobile phones

The chances are you’ll have come across the three Rs -Reduce, Reuse, Recycle- before. This trio of principles are all essential to cutting waste and, as a result, reducing our carbon footprints. However, whilst all these methods of waste reduction have their roles to play in making our lives greener, it’s important to remember that they aren’t all equally effective.

Whenever you see the three Rs written down they always appear in the same order, with ‘Reduce’ given pride of place at the head of the list. There’s a good reason for this and it should serve as a reminder that, whilst the increasingly innovative methods we have for reusing and recycling materials are great, we’re almost always better off simply finding ways to consume less in the first place.

I was reminded of this fact last week when my mobile phone network contacted me to inform me that I was coming to the end of my contract, and that, if I chose to stay with them, I’d be eligible for an upgrade to a new handset.

Had I been inclined to accept, it would’ve been easy enough to recycle my current handset (it’s an iPhone, so I’d only have needed to drop down the road to my nearest Apple store where they’d recycle it and hand over a gift card for it’s equivalent value) but as there was absolutely nothing wrong with it, swapping it for a newly produced, largely identical model would’ve been pretty tough to justify.

I had assumed that, in this case, my efforts to go for the greener option would mean I’d miss out financially, but, to my surprise, I was told that if I didn’t want a new handset, they’d reduce the price of my tariff instead. Result!

But whilst my own experience worked out well, it did get me thinking about the impact that this upgrade culture must be having on the environment.

Driving Demand

Given the amount of money that people shell out on phone contracts, when they’re offered an upgrade most people are going to grab it with both hands, seeing it as their just reward. On top of this, there’s the fact that, during the duration of the average phone contract, handsets can have moved on by a generation or two in terms of functionality. This pace of change only makes replacing an old phone once a contract is up even more tempting for your average consumer. Put these factors together and you have a situation were millions of people, who never would have bothered to replace their phone otherwise, are put in a position were it seems foolish not to increase their consumption.

It’s reckoned that, across the globe, about 1546 million phones were sold last year and it’s little surprise that upgrades are playing a massive role in driving these incredible levels of demand and production. To take one of the most popular smartphones as an example, 77% of iPhone 4 purchases were the result of upgrades.

A Brief Encounter

Naturally, it follows that the length of time a phone remains in use for has much more to do with the contract its user is on than its actual durability. With six month contracts becoming increasingly popular, it only makes sense that the average lifespan of a phone is currently less than eighteen months.

This is bad news for a number of reasons. Firstly, mobile phones cause far more emissions in the production stage than they do during the course of their use. In fact, despite all the infrastructure that networks require, and even factoring in considerations such as power seepage from inefficient chargers, phone use makes up a small portion of global emissions, with a year’s typical use coming to 47kg CO2e per person.

Consequently, the environmental impact of a phone is lowered the longer it stays in use. Indeed, the study ‘Life Cycle Assessment of the Mobile Communication System UMTS: Towards Eco-Efficient Systems’ predicted that retaining the same phone for four years rather than one would reduce it’s environmental impact by as much as 40%.

This effect is more pronounced in the case of smartphones as their production is more energy intensive than a regular handset. For instance, Apple’s latest offering, the iPhone 4S, according to the producer’s own estimates, causes 23% of its emissions through its actual use, whilst its production accounts for 69%. By changing handsets frequently we dramatically increase the environmental impact of each phone we own.

Turning Landfills into Goldmines

Secondly, there’s the problem of the discarded handsets themselves. In an ideal world consumption would be reduced by encouraging consumers to continue using the phones until they’re truly on their last legs, with recycling being a last resort. As it is, not only are we switching handsets frequently, we generally fail to recycle them. Less than 10% of phones presently end up getting recycled. If I were to sell my mobile it would definitely be to one of those phone recycling companies as it looks really easy to do and as we all know, the less work that is involved in something, the more likely we, the public, are to do it.

As well as being terrible in terms of the volume of material that gets sent to landfill as a result, it’s wasteful in the sense that much of that material is of high value. Altogether, thanks to discarded handsets, each year we throw away 4.7 tonnes of gold and 29 tonnes of silver, which combined would be worth £41.2m!

A Toxic Situation

These aren’t the only reasons that it’s far better to reduce than to recycle when it comes to phones. The production of cell phones can lead to some pretty nasty by-products. In their research paper ‘Cutting Edge Contamination’ Greenpeace found that a wide range of toxic substances are being discharged from plants assisting in the manufacture of parts for phones, especially those producing printed wiring boards (PWBs) which go inside the handsets.

They found that brominated chemicals and phthalate esters were being released from factories in China and other locations in the Far East. According to the report “these two chemical groups both contain chemicals that are known to be toxic, and some are also persistent in the environment” and there are concerns that wastewater from such sites can contaminate water supplies that are used in surrounding communities.

Down is the New Up

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that many of us are going to start living life without mobiles, and the good news is that, in the grand scheme of things, our use of mobiles isn’t one of the most pressing issues facing the environment. However, ditching energy intensive products well before the end of the their life span, as we’re frequently encouraged to do by mobile networks offering upgrades as incentive to stay with them, has the potential to become a major problem.

Next time you get the offer of an upgrade, you could do your bank balance and your carbon footprint a favour by turning it down and negotiating a downgrade on the price of your tariff instead!

Steve (152 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.

8 Responses to “Is It Really Good to Talk? – The Environmental Impact of Mobile Phones”

  1. monaug5
    June 19, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    This is a very interesting blog post because the impact of mobile phone’s on the health of us all and the environment is startling! Therefore what you have posted hopefully can give people an insight into what this can do the their carbon footprint and hopefully what they can do to change their lifestyles to better the environment in the long term.

  2. Soraya
    June 25, 2012 at 12:53 PM

    You covered a lot of ground here. People don’t realise how bad mobiles actually are for both us and the environment. Not taking into account the contracts are a rip off! Well written and researched article.

  3. Cameron
    June 25, 2012 at 10:11 PM

    Hey. I enjoyed reading the article. Couldn’t believe how much gold and silver is thrown away! Do you know which part of the phone they’re used in? Thanks for bringing this to peoples’ attentions :)

    • Steve
      June 25, 2012 at 10:24 PM

      Hi Cameron, the precious metals are almost certainly in the circuitry thanks to their conductive properties. It’s amazing how much though!

  4. Mike
    June 26, 2012 at 3:34 AM

    Nice article, I wasn’t aware of how bad we were at recycling mobile phones. The amount of precious materials we discard without actually realising it is insane.

  5. kristen
    July 7, 2012 at 3:24 PM

    I really do not think that if used properly and within a certain limit there will be any type of environmental hazards created by mobile phones.But it is true that mobile phones are having some side effects to the environment directly or indirectly not only to the environment but also to our health.

  6. Umair Khan
    July 13, 2012 at 4:01 PM

    I believe it is a good point to talk about because :-
    100 million mobiles thrown away in Europe each year.
    50 million mobile phone bought in the UK each year.
    11,250 tonnes of phones are hiding in drawers across the UK.
    Average mobile phone user replaces their handset every 18 months.
    36kg of CO2 is used to make one 90g phone.
    Only 15% of mobiles in Europe are recycled.
    Be a better judge and decide yourself. :)

    • Steve
      July 16, 2012 at 9:43 AM

      Wow, thanks Umair! Do you mind letting me know your sources for these stats so I can verify them?

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