In 2015, more than 1900 million mobile phones were sold worldwide. And about 75% of them are smartphones. Cellular phones and more specifically smartphones became a product of mass consumption. When we look at the global situation, we can see a gap between developed countries and those who are in development. Developed countries reached since 2007 an equipment rate above 100%, which means they are more cellular phones than people in those countries.
In France, it’s 24 million cellular phones that are sold each year. Apple revealed that his customers change for a new smartphone about every 3 years (when, in theory, a phone can correctly function for 10 years). But why are we consuming so many phones when the ones we already own are still functioning? The main reason to this tendency is that the technology evolves really fast. So when a new generation of smartphones arrives on the market, the previous one is already obsolete. The fact that smartphones manufacturers propose new products regularly contribute to what is often referred to planned obsolescence.
With such a big market and a such short lifetime for a cellular phone we can understand how big the impact of the phone’s industry is on our environment and our resources. This impact can be studied trough the life cycle of cellular phones described here:
Source : Mémo 14/377 de la Commission européenne, 26 mai 2014.
The first step of this life cycle is ore mining. Most of your electronics equipment such as mobile phones or computer require several metals to function (more than 40 for a smartphone (and 16 of them are rare earth materials)). The map above show the location of the principal resources needed to build a cellular phone. But some of those mines represent a real ethical dilemma. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo possesses 80% of the world coltan resources. But coltan extraction in DRC is mainly controlled by armed factions who keep all the benefits from production for themselves. The local population often work in non-human conditions (in 2015, 27 conflicts in Africa were directly linked to mineral resources’ exploitation).
Mining also reject a lot of pollution in the environment. Pollutants have a strong impact on air, soil and surface and underground waters. And the demand is still increasing. According to a study from the French institute ADEME (the Environment and Energy Control Agency); more than 80% of the environmental impact of a smartphone is due to the ore mining and manufacturing process. Transportation has in the end a low impact compared (less than 10%, but a strong impact on the ozone layer). Even if most of our smartphones are manufactured in Asia and then exported all around the world.
And the metals used today for smartphones are heavily necessary for them to function. Researchers from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies investigated how metals used in smartphones could be replaced by other ones. There conclusions show that none of them have a perfect substitute.
In this situation, recycling those devices is a major issue. Phones are made of various rare metals like gold. 1 ton of electronics cards contain 200 grams of gold. When a profitable gold mine contain 5 grams of gold for 1 ton of ore.
But in France, only 15% of cellular phones are recycled. A part of what’s left is sold on the second-hand market, often from developed countries to countries in development.
But the pressure on our environment caused by smartphones is not only the responsibility of phones manufacturers but also customers. Manufacturers respond to the demand. In order to reduce the environmental impact, customers will have to change their habits. Like keeping the same phone for a period longer than 3 years. And by recycling the old ones. But the population has little to non-knowledge on how smartphones are made.
So how can you recycle your mobile phone? You can bring it back to your operator who often proposes a discount on a new model if you give back yours. But other structures exist. In France, you can go to a collect point from Ecologic or Eco-systèmes to recycle your mobile phones or other electronics devices. The ADEME propose a website to locate the nearest collect point: http://www.ademe.fr/particuliers-eco-citoyens/dechets/bien-jeter/faire-dechets
The ADEME also gives advice to customers on how to choose a phone to minimize its impact on resources: “avoid buying a phone with a large screen, avoid phones with GPS functionality or with a camera or a radio”. Or in other words, don’t buy a smartphones. But in this smartphones war between phones manufacturers who are all proposing smartphones with the best functionalities or at the best prices, will customers really renounce to those gadgets?
ADEME (Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maitrise de l’Energie). Analyse du cycle de vie d’un téléphone portable. Synthèse. 30 avril 2008.
BLANDIN Marie-Christine .Rapport d’information n° 850 (2015-2016) fait au nom de la mission d’information. 27 septembre 2016. URL : http://www.senat.fr/rap/r15-850/r15-850.html
Bolis, Angela. « Le sulfureux parcours du téléphone portable, des mines aux filières clandestines de déchets ». Le Monde.fr, 1 octobre 2016, sect. Planète. http://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2016/10/01/le-sulfureux-parcours-du-telephone-portable-des-mines-aux-filieres-clandestines-de-dechets_5006655_3244.html.
« Les institutions européennes s’accordent sur un encadrement des « minerais de sang » ». Le Monde.fr, 16 juin 2016. http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2016/06/16/les-institutions-europeennes-s-accordent-sur-un-encadrement-des-minerais-de-sang_4951881_3212.html.
Richard Allaway. IB Geography – Global Interactions: Mobile Phones. 2010. URL : http://www.slideshare.net/geographyalltheway/ib-geography-global-interactions-mobile-phones
UNEP. Environmental risks and Challenges of anthropogenic metals flows and Cycles. URL : http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/portals/24102/pdfs/environmental_challenges_metals-full%20report.pdf