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Home Latest Articles Smartphones Kagoo Guide: Smartphone Sustainability - Problems

Kagoo Guide: Smartphone Sustainability - Problems

Updated 25 May 2021
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Kagoo recently started supporting smartphones on the site, offering comprehensive details on a whole range of quality smartphones. You can browse all the latest Smartphones in our Smartphone Hub & view the best deals on our Smartphone Deals Page. To celebrate their arrival, we’re looking in depth at smartphone features - today we’re starting a deep dive into the issue of sustainable design in phone construction.

Sustainability can be defined as the ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’. Simply, it’s about using the fewest resources and creating the least possible mess in order to keep the environment healthy. In terms of smartphones, this covers several key factors:

  • Materials used to make the smartphone
  • Waste created during construction
  • Energy expended in construction
  • Carbon footprint of transport
  • Wastage from broken/old phones

Smartphones are a crucial tool of the modern age - there are an enormous number of phones currently active in the world, and more are being created every minute. Unfortunately they are also high tech devices, which means they require specialist resources and equipment to make, and a massive infrastructure to support construction and transport. This all has a massive impact on the planet - therefore even a small improvement to smartphone manufacturing would have a sizable effect on the environment.

It’s estimated there are over 3.6 billion smartphones in the world right now - a number expected to swell to 4.3 billion in the next 3 years.

The Impact of Smartphone Materials

Let’s start by looking at the problems inherent in building phones. Modern smartphones are extremely complicated electronic devices, and the materials required for their construction can be costly and difficult to acquire. A single smartphone can contain as many as 7 ‘rare earth metals’, not to mention a large collection of other metals and materials, such as copper, aluminium, iron, gold & glass. Some of these materials are troublesome to acquire in quantities required for mass production, and are becoming increasingly rare as worldwide consumption increases.

Rare Earth Metals

Rare earth metals (or rare earth elements) are a group of 17 metals used heavily in electronic components and technology. Despite their name, rare earth metals are reasonably plentiful in the Earth’s crust. However deposits don’t tend to cluster together in the same way iron or copper - this makes them difficult and costly to obtain in any sizable quantities. This is the reason they are called ‘rare’ metals.

The ever-increasing difficulty of acquiring the necessary raw materials - and the continued push for ever-more powerful technology - has some troubling knock-on effects. The most efficient way to secure the resources is by mining, which both causes damage to the environment, requires an enormous amount of energy and generates substantial amounts of waste. Moreover, many of the mines that produce the metals required for smartphones are based in countries with poor environmental & safety standards. This can lead to deforestation, contaminated land, child labour, people trafficking & numerous other human rights violations.

Several of the metals required in smartphone construction are known as ‘conflict materials’ - this included tin, tantalum and gold. Much like ‘conflict diamonds’, conflict materials are troublesome because of their use in financing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighbouring countries. They are therefore heavily regulated, and manufacturers have a responsibility to make sure they are using ethically-sourced materials. This doesn’t always happen - especially since regulation was only brought in a decade ago, and changing up such a large supply chain takes a lot of time and effort.

Smartphone Construction

All of these issues mean that smartphone manufacture is a minefield of social and environmental uses - and that’s before the devices are even constructed! Gathering the materials is just the first step in the ‘supply chain’ for a smartphone - once they are collected, there is still the construction, transportation & sale of the finished device to consider.

Each of these stages has a substantial energy impact, which in turn causes an increase in harmful greenhouse gases and other by-products that damage the environment. For example:

  • Transporting the gathered materials to the required factory is an energy-intensive procedure, and unless electric vehicles are used, causes harmful pollution to be released.
  • Factories use a massive amount of power and resources to run.
  • Factories can also use hazardous chemicals in the manufacturing process and in the products themselves.
  • Transporting the products by freighter or cargo plane creates a large carbon footprint due to the fuel required to power the ship.
  • Finally, the shops that sell the products require energy to run.

The majority of these steps are problems for any manufactured product, but smartphones are such a gigantic market - and with an ever-increasing need for manufacturing capacity - that the problems are felt far more severely than, say, headphones. Moreover, smartphones are almost viewed as disposable devices - smartphones are difficult to repair, and new models are being constantly released. Therefore people replace their smartphones at a higher-than-usual rate - this high disposal rate causes a large amount of waste from discarded/broken smartphones.

Hopefully you now have begun to get an idea about the scale of the problem that smartphone manufacture poses to the environment. While the situation is extremely troublesome, it’s not without hope. Next time, we’ll continue on to look at ways this can be improved, both for companies and for the consumer.

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