To most people mobile devices like smartphones are so much more than simple everyday objects. In personal messages, music, notes and calendars they basically contain our entire lives.
Despite the deep relationship to our smartphone, many do not hesitate to replace it with the newer model as soon as they get the chance. A report from 2016 suggests that in the UK smartphones are replaced by a newer version every two years.
Many people are not ware what the costs of this tech consumerism are. Smartphones, laptops and other consumer electronics contain up to 92 different elements and the origin of some is very problematic.
One example is the metal cobalt which is used in the lithium-ion batteries powering our devices. Cobalt normally comes from mines in African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cobalt miners in these countries have to endure harsh working conditions with little to no safety regulations to protect them. The cobalt mines in DRC have also been linked to the use of child labour.
Other metals in mobile devices that have the same issues are gold, tantalum and tin. Gold and tantalum are used in the electric circuits while tin is contained in touch screens.
These metals, cobalt, gold, tantalum and tin, are also called ”conflict minerals”. The reason is that their trade has been linked to funding killings and violence in the DRC and other places.
In addition, the large scale mining and extraction of the metals needed to make a mobile device causes pollution and devours large amounts of energy, which in turn fuels global warming. And it does not stop there. After extraction the metals are mostly transported to China where the devices are assembled often by workers with low pay and poor working conditions.
So, what can we do as consumers to make sure our beloved smartphones do not have a negative impact?
1) Don’t upgrade your device unless you really have to. Even though it is tempting to replace your device as soon as the new version is released, it is best to use your old device until it really stops working.
2) Try to repair your device when it is broken. The two things that are most likely to break in your smartphone are the battery and the screen. Both can be replaced. Even though many current phone models cannot be taken apart and repaired easily, you can still try to repair the device yourself using YouTube tutorials. You can also send it to a shop for repair.
3) When you do have to part with your device, donate it to charity or sell it for example to a refurbishing shop. A lot of environmental problems are caused by mobile device disposal. Recycling is difficult because electronci devices contain so many different elements. Often they are sent to countries like Ghana, Nigeria or Vietnam for recycling. The easiest way to extract the valuable metals like copper, gold and aluminium is to take the devices apart and burn them. This process releases toxic chemicals into the air and the soil.
4) Consider buying a refurbished phone. From refurbishing companies you can get sturdy and cheap smart phones. None of the problems discussed above regarding mining and disposal are associated with them.
5) When buying a new device think carefully about what you want. Greenpeace’s ”Guide to Greener Electronics” is very useful if you want to buy a phone that has been produced sustainably. The guide rated the 17 world leading mobile device producers in the categories, Energy, Resource Consumption and Chemicals. The most sustainable device in their rating was the Fairphone made by a Dutch company with a grade B. It was followed by Apple in place two with a grade B-. A relatively young company producing more sustainable mobile devices is Shiftphone. This German start-up focusses on repairability and extending the lifespan os consumer electronics.