The increase in e-waste every year is undeniable. This growth, driven by steady sales of more than a billion a year, means that more and more people carry hand-sized computers in their pockets. It is easy to understand the impact of smartphones on human behavior, as this digital transformation has evolved, for example, communication, financial inclusion or agricultural productivity. However, this large sale of smartphones also means an increase in waste streams and carbon emissions. Faced with this scenario, we must reconsider the life cycles of these devices and create strategies beyond recycling.
The environmental impact of smartphones
Understanding the impact of smartphones on the environment is fundamental. One of the repercussions of these devices is identified in their carbon emissions. According to an article by the World Economic Forum, the manufacturing phase of smartphones generates between 85% and 95% of carbon emissions. Not only that, but they also contribute to approximately 10% of global e-waste, a figure that was estimated at over 50 million tons in 2019. In other words, smartphones and similar devices create waste streams equivalent to more than 300,000 double-decker buses each year.
These figures can also be represented in money, to understand how much they equate to for the industry. The potential raw material value of this e-waste was estimated at $57 million in 2019 alone; while electronics recycling rates stood at 17% that same year. The production of smartphones is also becoming more complicated every year, because as sales grow, materials for their manufacture become scarcer. One example is microchips. The Royal Society of Chemistry estimates that 6 of the elements needed for their manufacture will be exhausted in the next 100 years. This warning must be heeded today.
New challenges for e-waste
Of course, it is necessary to recycle smartphones when they reach the end of their useful life. However, it is now also important to keep phones in use for longer, so that the materials used last much longer, resulting in a reduced waste stream and less energy in the recycling process. In other words, extending the useful life of smartphones is key to reducing e-waste. In addition, this avoids annual carbon emissions and reduces the waste streams that need to be recycled.
Like recycling, extending the life of smartphones is also a difficult task. Traditionally, manufacturers schedule the obsolescence of devices to keep them in operation for a period of time, ensuring a steady stream of future sales. Also, many smartphones are not designed to be repaired or reused, making it difficult to exchange parts. A complication in the battery or some other component often means end of life and generates electronic waste, even if the rest of the device is functioning properly.
Policies changing the repair landscape
Currently, smartphone repair involves paying very high prices, as manufacturers are reluctant to provide parts to third parties and maintain a monopoly on repair. However, these limited repair services are changing in Europe, where they are looking to eliminate waste and keep materials in continuous circulation. Fairphone is a company that has popularized repairable and upgradeable smartphones. Some parts can be replaced and refurbished individually to obtain new devices. In addition, repair services are more accessible to users.
These actions are based on the new “right to repair” that exists in the European Union and is already bringing about changes. Different countries are promoting the repair of electronic devices, and with this more providers of these services are appearing, providing levels of competition and lowering prices for users. This initiative should also apply to software updates, making more cell phones useful. The new scenario also requires a new business approach.
The current business is to sell smartphones with contracts for a period of time; however, these could be converted into leases so that the handset is returned at the end of the contract period. In this way, manufacturers are assured of recovering the raw material and refurbishing them. This is not the only business idea; it is also about encouraging more companies to allow their employees to use a single phone for personal and work use. This could reduce the use of more smartphones per person.
Working to manage e-waste
The future in the management of these devices requires producers, governments and the private sector to work together. The use of smartphones is expected to increase, and with it their waste and toxicity, so it is important to address the consequences of the future. Today we need to work on the flow of this e-waste and ensure the circulation of some materials so that they do not harm the environment.
It is important to start looking for solutions to meet the upcoming challenges that await us. For this reason, at eSmart we have been working on the recycling of computers that can have a longer useful life in the hands of children and families who need them. Our commitment goes hand in hand with a sustainable future, both socially and environmentally.