Is your phone really smart?

Smartphones have revolutionized our daily lives. Today, communication is fast, efficient and low-cost, from sending instant messages to global interaction at our fingertips.

But have you ever thought, how smart are our phones when it comes to their impact on the environment, do you know what’s really inside your phone?

Major players in the technology industry have taken action to reduce the impact of the sector, however, environmental, social, economic and human rights concerns continue to surround the extraction of metals used to manufacture this equipment.

Gold, silver, cobalt, tin, tantalum, tungsten and copper are essential components of mobile phones and other electronic devices we use daily. Its extraction contributes significantly to climate change given that mining is one of the most intensive users of heavy fossil fuels.

Desire Koffi, a 24-year-old artist, holds discarded cell phone keyboards in his workshop in Abidjan, where he turns phones into pieces of art. Photo by REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Public awareness can help promote a mining sector that contributes to sustainable socio-economic development. While the negative impacts of mining are inevitable, many of them could be prevented.

Our smartphones are among the most resource-intensive goods on the planet, relative to their weight. They contain palladium and platinum, and other less valuable but difficult to extract materials, such as aluminum.

Most companies publish little information about their suppliers, so their performance and environmental impacts are out of the public eye.  to divert attention from the environmental impacts they cause. In addition, there is a lack of urgency and transparency at the global level in addressing e-waste.

The electronics industry generates up to 41 million tons of e-waste containing valuable materials each year. Less than 16% of this waste is recycled in the formal sector.

A work of art created with discarded telephone keypads is displayed in the workshop of artist Desire Koffi in Abidjan. Photo by REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Beyond the impact of our phone

Every year 300 tons of gold are used in a wide range of electronic products. At the end of its useful life, this equipment becomes an “urban mine” with massive recycling potential for secondary gold supply.

“Beyond the smartphones carbon footprint, the biggest environmental concern in relation to e-waste is the impact of end-of-life products. Informal recycling practices, especially in developing countries, are polluting and have serious effects on workers and the environment,” said Feng Wang, UN Environment Programme Officer for Sustainable Life Cycle and Consumption and Production.

A UN Environment report on crimes and risks related to e-waste highlights that this type of waste (including computers, mobile phones, televisions or refrigerators) emits toxic substances such as mercury, arsenic, zinc, lead and brominated flame retardants.

Desire Koffi poses next to one of her pieces of art during an exhibition. Photo by REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Increase the intelligence of our phones

80% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint is produced during its manufacture, 16% when it is used and 3% when transported.

As the demand for mobile phones increases, the lifespan of this equipment is reduced. Sophisticated phones are increasingly discarded and stiff competition from the sector drives companies to produce a more up-to-date, recent, thin and intelligent mobile.

“The shelf life of the product is getting shorter and shorter, therefore less sustainable,” Wang said. “We can all contribute by recycling, reselling or reusing our smartphones with responsible organizations. However, reusing or buying fewer models will not solve the problem,” he added.

In 2016, around 435,000 tons of mobile phones with raw materials valued at US$ 10.7 billion were discarded worldwide.

“The rapid rate of cell phone replacement due to technical development and market strategies is unsustainable and often leads to unnecessary waste of functional devices,” Wang added.

Due to data security reasons and emotional attachment to devices, most people choose to store their outdated phones at home, rather than sending them to collection and recycling channels for responsible treatment.

Making our phones truly smart not only involves recycling and reusing the materials that make them up, but also designing sustainable and durable models that in the long term make e-waste a thing of the past.

On the road to the UN Environment Assembly, UN Environment is calling: Think about the planet. Live simple. Join the discussion on social media using the #SolucionesInnovadoras hashtag, share your stories and find out what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future.