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A closer look at smartphone pollution

February 09, 2023
topic:Sustainable Consumption
tags:#pollution, #electronic waste, #mass production, #mining, #climate change, #recycling
by:Chermaine Lee
The mass production of smartphones has exacerbated a wide range of environmental crises, including deforestation and water pollution. But the rising market of refurbished phones might offer some hope.

Over half of the world’s population owns a smartphone according to recent statistic. But the multi-function devices that have become a permanent fixture in our palms leave a trail of environmental pollution and a largely overlooked carbon footprint. 

The manufacturing process of a smartphone accounts for about 85 percent of its carbon footprint, making it the most damaging device to the environment. These emissions mainly come from metal extraction, shipping and production.

These mini portable computers use as many as 70 elements of chemicals, equivalent to about 80 percent of the periodic table. Silicone and plastic take up about half of the materials used in a smartphone, while iron, aluminium and copper remain the most common metals

Metal extraction, for one, induces massive solid and liquid waste, according to Dr Karen Hudson-Edwards, a sustainable mining professor at the University of Exeter in the UK. 

"These elements only form a small proportion of the material that is extracted," she told FairPlanet. "Once they are removed from the material, the rest is discarded as waste."

Polluting metal mining

"These wastes can contain potentially eco-toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium and lead, which can find their way into waters, soils and atmospheric dusts," Dr Hudson-Edwards continued. "Mining can also be linked with deforestation and leaving 'footprints' on the landscape, such as buildings, waste and equipment."

Metal mining activities concentrate in Brazil, West Africa, India, China and Southeast and Central Asia, with others scattered over Western Australia, Southern Africa and Central and North America.

A 2021 study on Global Environmental Change found that mining extraction in the world has shown no signs of abating from 2000 to 2019, with half of them conducted in close proximity to protected areas and nearly 90 percent in locations suffering from water scarcity

These mines are found to increase the pressure on already vulnerable ecosystems through mine tailings spills, for instance, which often lead to the contamination of soil, water and air.

Last year, a dam collapse in South Africa’s Jagersfontein diamond mine released a sludge of tailings that inundated homes, rivers and lands, and even reached water systems for drinking water and agriculture irrigation. It also led to human and animal casualties. 

The mining of gold, a precious metal used for manufacturing electric conductors for our phones, has led to deforestation, water contamination and violence against indigenous people in Brazil, as well as to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Venezuela.

Water bodies located in the vicinity of copper mines - with the largest ones found mainly in Chile and Peru - can turn reddish after being contaminated. It also affects fish, wildlife and farmland.

In China’s Inner Mongolia, a horrifying-looking-lake is brimming with with electronic waste, such as smartphones, as the country produces most of the world’s rare earth metals.

"Countries that mine the elements needed for smartphones and do not conduct the mining in a sustainable and responsible way have the largest negative impact," said Dr Hudson-Edwards. But she added that China is now improving its mining practices. 

The damage, however, doesn't stem solely from metal mines, but from smartphone factories as well.

Many smartphone production facilities are located in the Global South, including in China, Vietnam and India, among others; countries that are vulnerable and are already bearing the brunt of human-caused climate change. An expansion of the production fleet translates to replacing rice fields and farmlands with manufacturers. 

"Smartphone manufacture also generates heat. Both of these impacts affect communities living near the factories and global populations who are vulnerable to climate change," Dr Hudson-Edwards added.

A hopeful message

In October of last year, Apple claimed that its corporate operations are running on 100 percent renewable energy, and said it will commit to a carbon neutral supply chain by 2030. The production of a typical iPhone 14 still accounts for over 80 percent of its total carbon emissions, but it is using more recycled materials like recycled gold and rare earth metals. 

Currently, about 41 million tonnes of e-waste is produced each year, but less than 16 percent are recycled, according to a UN report. Such waste releases a range of toxic chemicals that pose a threat to the health of the local environment and waste pickers, particularly in the Global South, where dumping grounds are typically located, including in places like Ghana and Nigeria. 

Dr Hudson-Edwards pointed out that the challenges in the fight against pollution from smartphones often revolve around the recycling of phone materials. 

"They include ensuring that people give up their old phones for recycling; making sure that smartphones do go forward for recycling rather than ending up in landfill sites or as e-waste; being able to successfully take smartphones apart to recover their valuable components such as copper, gold, silver, lithium and cobalt; and supporting smartphone recycling companies."

While the expert said no production is completely carbon-free, the silver linings might lie in the fact that the market of refurbished, used smartphones or those produced out of recycled materials is emerging: Over 251 million used smartphones were shipped across the world in 2021, and by 2027, 200 million more shipments are predicted, according to Statista.

China and India are currently the biggest markets for refurbished and used phones. 

Eco brands like Fairphone aim to produce smartphones with minimal environmental impacts and fair treatment to workers. Fairphone’s phones are said to use 100 percent recycled plastic back cover and produce no e-waste.

A Deloitte report also shows a few other market indicators that point to a more sustainable future of the dirty smartphone industry, including higher durability of smartphones, longer software support and higher costs of brand new devices. 

"With increasing interest in moving to a circular economy globally, I expect this trend [the emergence of refurbished smartphones] will continue," said Dr Hudson-Edwards.

Image by Andrew Guan.

Article written by:
Chermaine Lee
Asia Desk Editor
Embed from Getty Images
Over half of the world’s population owns a smartphone.
Embed from Getty Images
About 41 million tonnes of e-waste is produced each year, but less than 16 percent are recycled, according to a UN report.
Embed from Getty Images
China and India are the biggest markets for refurbished and used phones.
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