The Secret Energy of Your Smartphone
Smartphones aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of climate change and although we don’t consider the effects of computer technology, they have a huge impact on the environment.
In 2022, it was estimated that smartphones generated 146 million tons of CO2, the same as the airline industry. In fact, smartphones may have more of an energy impact than any other technological device.
The issue arises around not just how users operate their devices, but the cost of producing the device also impacts the environment. This includes the manufacturing process, as well as the normalising of over consumption.
The average lifespan of a smartphone is just 2-5 years, with companies launching new models continually as a profit mechanism with no thought on how this impacts the environment. By encouraging users to discard devices quickly, it results in more waste that is often not recycled. What’s more, smartphone companies update their operating systems year round, which leads to devices becoming outdated and unusable quickly, resulting in more waste.
The solution is quite simple – companies should encourage users to keep their mobiles for longer or until it is broken, and even then to recycle old devices to minimise waste. But this alone will not reduce the energy consumption of smartphones at the rate that is required.
Software Companies at Fault
Software companies are driving the growth in technology, and the unsustainable growth in their carbon footprint.
One of the leading factors of users discarding old devices is due to the devices being slower, often caused by software companies doing more system updates and devices becoming obsolete.
Another common issue is batteries not lasting as long as they should, which leads to devices being disposed of, or if we are lucky, held onto but needing to be charged more often, leading to more power being used.
Unfortunately, when devices are no longer usable, they are often disposed of in landfill rather than recycled. This leads to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
95% of mobile phone energy consumption comes from the manufacturing process, including extraction of raw materials and shipping, and these processes are largely to blame for the emissions released. The exact amount of CO2 released per device depends on a number of manufacturing factors, including amount of recycled materials used, how energy efficient manufacturing facilities are, and the use of renewable energy.
Smartphones are made up of around 70 different elements, each of them contributing to environmental effects from where they are mined. Because of the high turnover of smartphones, more elements are needed, which have to be mined which in itself is a large contributor to energy used.
Data centres and servers are required for software to run, needing to work 24/7 so that users can exchange texts, emails and downloads, and access the internet. Unfortunately, a large number of these centres do not run on renewable energy, often wasting electricity and increasing carbon emissions.
The quickest way to reduce the carbon emissions of a smartphone would be to extend its lifespan, through the manufacturing and recycling stages of the device.
Manufacturers and smartphone companies need to transition to renewable energy, whilst increasing the transparency of recycling old devices and offering customers incentives to hold on to devices for longer.
Luckily, technology now exists to recycle even the more rare materials in your smartphone. What’s more, research shows that users are choosing to keep their devices long after their initial contract has expired, opting to use a monthly sim card subscription instead of purchasing a new device.
Ultimately, it is the manufacturing process of smartphones that needs an overhaul – finding ways to make the operation more efficient. Pair this with users holding on to devices for longer, and better recycling of old devices, gives a good chance of saving energy in the future.