• The lifecycle of mobile devices has several negative environmental impacts.
  • These can be mitigated by focusing on pinch points within the lifecycle.
  • Reuse, recycling and extending the life of devices can all make a difference.

The mobile ecosystem has transformed millions of lives. Today, nine out of 10 adults around the world own a mobile device, which can often be used to conduct business, transfer money, gain access to educational programmes and improve access to healthcare.

But while the mobile industry has brought joy to many lives and fundamentally transformed consumer habits, there are a number of pain points within the mobile lifecycle that we need to address.

The dangers of device production

The lifecycle of a mobile device begins with its manufacture. A smartphone is made up of 62 different metals and metalloids, which all contribute to essential components of a device. In order to obtain these precious metals and produce a single smartphone, 34kg of ore needs to be mined, using 100 litres of water and 20.5g of cyanide.

To put this into context, analyst firm IDC has found that 1.4 billion smartphones were shipped globally in 2018—which means in 2018, 34 billion kg of ore would have had to have been mined, using 100 billion litres of water and 20.5 million kg of cyanide, to produce these devices.

But that’s not all. Along with these materials, the technology sector consumes a staggering 335 tons of gold annually. The mining for this takes place in many regions around the world, including the Amazon rainforest. An area of Amazonian rainforest the size of a football pitch is being destroyed every minute.

The impact of the smartphone industry on the environment is catastrophic. And something needs to be done.

The affordability conundrum

Once new devices have been produced and hit the shelves, we see another problem—these devices are often unaffordable. Flagship devices from premium manufacturers cost in excess of $1,000 each. And the price of devices is only set to rise even higher, thanks to new innovations like 5G.

But while the majority of operators in developed economies focus their attention on encouraging consumers to upgrade from 4G to 5G devices, much of the population in emerging economies such as India and throughout many parts of Africa are still using outdated 2G and 3G networks. While these regions are now looking to upgrade to 4G and eventually 5G networks, the affordability conundrum strikes again—how will consumers in these emerging markets afford newer devices, if many consumers in first-world markets can’t afford them?

The issue of digital inclusion and e-waste

As new 5G networks are deployed, and emerging markets like India and Africa undergo network upgrades, it is hard to imagine that many people across the world are still unconnected. Yet the global internet penetration rate is just 53%.

What’s more, as manufacturers produce new devices, the impact old devices have on the environment once they are discarded is often forgotten. The UN stated that last year, electronic and electrical waste reached 50 million tonnes, with just a fifth of all e-waste formally recycled. Millions of people are thought to work informally recycling these materials, and are often exposed to dangerous working environments.

We are at a stage where more devices are being produced, with half of the population still without connectivity—while the majority of old devices are being thrown away, more often than not into landfill.

Saving the planet one device at a time

We must address these issues and give our planet a fighting chance. The simplest way to reduce the environmental impact of the smartphone industry and provide connectivity to the unconnected is to extend the lifecycle of existing mobile devices.

Mobile trade-in programmes are one way to do this. By offering consumers money for their pre-owned devices, mobile operators, retailers and manufacturers not only ensure devices are recycled responsibly, they can make devices more affordable for consumers.

For example, consider a typical smartphone that retails at $1,000. If a consumer had an old device with a value of $300, then they could get a new phone for $700 if they trade in this older device. Once traded in, this pre-owned device could be repurposed and given a second life in an emerging market. As a pre-owned device, a retailer could sell this device at a lower price point in an emerging market, making what would be considered a perfectly good device, affordable.

There are also ways that devices not fit for repurpose can be recycled responsibly, without ending up in landfill. For example, Apple has created a disassembly robot, called Daisy, designed to reclaim the valuable materials stored in unwanted iPhones. Within an hour, Daisy can take apart up to 200 iPhones, removing and sorting components, so that Apple can recover materials that traditional recyclers can’t.

The biggest environmental impact of smartphones occurs during manufacture
The biggest environmental impact of smartphones occurs during manufacture
Image: Greenpeace

The Olympic Committee has also been accepting donations of old devices to make medals made entirely from recycled materials. From 6.21 million devices, the Olympic Committee was able to extract 32kg of gold, 3.5 tonnes of silver and 2.2 tonnes of bronze from unwanted devices.

Every device that can have another life means one less device being manufactured, less damage caused to our planet, and a device put in the hands of someone who otherwise would simply not be able to afford it. Research has shown that extending the lifespan of smartphones and other electronic devices by just one year can save as much carbon emissions as taking two million cars off the road each year.

Over the past decade, HYLA Mobile has returned over $7 billion to US consumers through mobile device trade-ins, repurposed 57.9 million devices, diverted 26 million pounds of e-waste, avoided 71.6 billion gallons of water from being polluted, and brought connectivity to 42.7 million consumers. But HYLA is only just scratching the surface of what needs to be done.

There is tremendous opportunity to extend the life of mobile devices, deliver more value to consumers, promote digital inclusion and restrict the environmental impact of e-waste. This issue will not go away on its own. We need the telecoms industry to recognise the issue and come together if we are to mitigate some of the damage it is causing and play a role in saving our planet.