The environmental costs of smartphones
We’re all familiar with the extraordinary benefits of our phones—including environmental ones, such as their contribution to tele-working. Most of us have also contemplated the social and psychological downsides. What’s perhaps less well understood are the significant ecological problems connected to these ubiquitous gadgets. In a striking coincidence, the day I received the commission for this article, my smartphone went for a swim in a rocky creek. Surprisingly, it survived—sort of. I could still send and receive texts and access the web. But the sound was gone (so no phone calls), the camera was kaput, and overall, my year-old device was behaving like an overtired toddler—stubborn and temperamental. I resigned myself to dishing out an obnoxious sum on a replacement. Then I began researching the environmental costs of cellphones. It didn’t take long for guilt and confusion to set in.
According to groundbreaking research led by Dr. Lotfi Belkhir of the W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology at McMaster University, smartphones are the most environmentally damaging of all the information and communications devices we use.
Although smartphones require minimal energy to operate, their production—which involves energy-intensive and potentially dangerous mining practices, as well as numerous nonsustainable manufacturing activities—leaves an inordinate carbon footprint.
But wait, there’s more. Once the devices are in our hands, their extraordinary functions—everything from texting to video downloading—are made possible by data centres. Yet most of these centres “continue to be powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels,” Belkhir points out in a McMaster University news release.
Then there’s the staggering rate at which new smartphones are produced and sold (roughly 1.5 billion per year since 2016). According to Alex Sebastian, co-founder of Orchard, a Toronto-based company that services and sells pre-owned smartphones, our smartphone habits constitute a “a recipe for considerable damage to the environment” because “virtually everyone owns one, and we upgrade them so often.”
A key feature of this trend is the fact that most smartphones are built to last a mere two years. They’re neither easy nor cheap to repair, and their components are difficult to recycle. The accelerated obsolescence of smartphones, Professor Belkhir’s study reports, is central to phone manufacturers’ business models. And consumers, for our part, are easily—even biologically—lured by messages about the so-called “must-have” features of the latest smartphone model.
Having glimpsed the environmental dark side of smartphones, I wondered if I could get by with my broken one (“irreparable,” according to the service rep who checked it). I managed just fine for two weeks. Then a flat tire in the middle of a heat wave convinced me that the ability to make a regular call wasn’t an extravagance.
I replaced my phone—but not the usual way. Having determined my actual needs, I purchased an older, used device in perfect working condition and collected a modest recycling payback for the phone I’d dropped in the creek. My new-to-me phone isn’t cutting-edge—which is arguably its greatest feature.
“The 2022 PsychPhone ZX is waiting for you. With stunning holographic images and mind-reading predictive capabilities, this phone is unlike anything you’ve experienced before.”
Parodies aside, tech advertisers are masterful at exploiting our desire for novelty and our need to feel special. Their messages also promise the dopamine hit we get from things we perceive as exciting, pleasurable, sexy. Stepping back and examining these messages with a critical eye can help us make better choices when it comes to costly, high-stakes technology purchases.