In Our Hands, the Environmental Impact of Our Phones

As technology becomes increasingly normalized in our exceedingly digital era, phones have grown to become an integral part of everyday life. They may seem innocent, but they are actually extremely detrimental to the environment.

In 2007, 1% of carbon emissions were produced from phones, but by the year 2040, it is projected to rise to 14%. According to Honest Mobile, the carbon footprint of a phone is separated into 3 sections: the manufacturing of the phone, using the phone, and the waste produced by the phone.

Manufacturing the phone is a major factor in a phone’s carbon footprint. BBVA suggests that around 80% of an electronic device’s carbon footprint is generated at the manufacturing stage. Manufacturing a phone is separated into three categories: the materials, the energy consumed by factories, and the transportation used to package and deliver the goods. Additionally, it is imperative to acknowledge the toxic chemicals and metals used in producing a phone. Each phone requires 16 of the 17 rare earth materials, such as neodymium and terbium, and most of these rare materials (97%) are exported from China.

According to Techwalla, Aluminium alloys, Lithium Cobalt, and Carbon graphite are used for the phone’s batteries; Gold, copper and silver are used for the wiring; and aluminum oxide and silicon dioxide with a thin layer of indium oixde is used in the phone’s glass. The mining conducted to obtain these materials also causes severe harm to the atmosphere, as toxic byproducts seep into the soil, water, and surrounding ecosystems. Patrick Byrnes, a senior lecturer at John Moores University, says “gold mining for the tech industry is one of the main reasons for deforestation in the Amazon.”

Chinese factories, where a large portion of phones are constructed, unfortunately use coal as their main power source, emitting vast quantities of air pollution in the process. According to End Coal, coal is responsible for 46% of carbon emissions around the world and contributes 72% greenhouse gas emission in the electricity sector. After phones are developed in China, they are transported around the world for consumers. They are transported in large shipments on planes and flown across the globe. On average a plane emits around 53 pounds (24kg) of carbon per mile (1.6km). The Guardian states that a typical one way flight from China to the US would emit nearly 400,000 pounds of carbon (around 170,000kg).

General phone usage is another way that our devices contribute to climate change. According to Honest Mobile, one mobile network states that a 1 minute mobile to mobile call emits 57g of CO2, a SMS text emits 0.0014g of CO2, and 1GB of data uses 3kg of CO2. Today, around 6 billion people own phones, worldwide. Thus, if everyone used 1GB of data, it would emit 18 billion kilograms of carbon (around 40 billion lbs). With the quantity of people users rising each day, increased data and energy is subsequently consumed, leading to inevitable climate deterioration

The third avenue phones lead to environmental decline is the e-waste they produce. It is clear that phones are designed to be unsustainable as 151 million phones are thrown away each year worldwide. Annie Leonard refers to this notion as “Designed for the Dump,” which underlines items that are designed to last short periods of time so companies can rake in increased profit. It will often cost more money to repair a phone than to purchase a new one, so consumers often prefer to buy a new one and in the latest model. The average phone lasts around 2 years, but this isn’t due to the design of the phone. Large companies like Apple release new phones at fast rates, leaving consumers with a relentless desire to possess the most up-to-date devices — wasting fully functioning devices in the process and fueling the e-waste crisis.

It is clear that the environmental impact of the manufacturing, usage and wastage of our phones must be acknowledged. Recycling your old phones and attempting to repair them before immediately purchasing a newer alternative are two ways you can decrease the environmental toll of the item we’ve grown so dependent on.

501(c)4 youth movement bridging the gap between non-climate groups & intersectional climate action.