We might not have hotels on the moon. The cure for cancer is still decades away. Even self-driving cars, though undoubtedly an inevitable reality, are not yet a commonplace feature of modern society. But roughly one out of three human beings currently carries around a high-powered computer in their pocket or purse capable of countless functions, which is pretty cool.
Without a doubt, the age of the smartphone is upon us. Unfortunately, this widespread embracement of mobile technology has a negative impact on the environment. The manufacturing process of an iPhone or Android device puts tremendous strain on the environment for a number of reasons, mainly the energy and waste involved in extracting the precious metals necessary for smartphone design.
It’s easy to focus entirely on the manufacturing process when discussing the ways in which smartphones are far from sustainable, but the topic is more nuanced. In fact, there are parts of smartphone sustainability which most consumers probably don’t want to hear. Mainly, they share half the responsibility.
Let’s take a closer look:
Society demands products, and products lead to inevitable waste. It’s the waste which can be avoided which most environmentalists rightly believe needs to be squashed out. Most consumers would agree. Most consumers may need to be told they play a major role in preventing this unnecessary waste.
If you’ve owned more than one smartphone, there’s a good chance you’ve essentially totaled one or two; the damage inflicted from a drop, crush, exposure to water, or a series of these incidents adding up over time destroyed the device beyond reasonably priced repair. Not only is the phone prematurely rendered useless, its replacement drives demand for increased manufacturing when multiplied by the millions of fubar’ed phones out there.
So what’s the solution? Think about it for a minute. Virtually every time a phone is destroyed this way, what’s the common denominator? It wasn’t protected by a durable case, tempered glass screen protector and/or other forms of guard against inevitable accidents. Keep those smartphones safe from harm, it’s that simple.
As previously mentioned, no responsible smartphone care strategy is capable of keeping a mobile device from eventually breaking down and being discarded. Such destined decrepitude is a fact of life, technology included. However, life goes on.
Not unlike organic life and death, the elements which once made the entity can be retooled for use elsewhere after being broken down. For every million smartphones recycled instead of simply sent to the landfill, 35, 274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium can be retrieved and reused, greatly reducing the demand for further extraction of these elements.
It comes off as a classic example of mansplaining three decades on, but Indiana Jones perhaps said it best when reacting to his love interest’s remark about his not being the man he was ten years ago: “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” Or, for a slightly less condescending movie quote taken from another Harrison Ford classic: “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
Smartphones, like cars and other machines, are fated to survive for as long as their parts can continue to work without failure. While cynics will always insist companies are not interested in designing products to last longer than the last model (in some industries, this might be true) smartphone brand/model reputation, like automobiles, is too dependent on durability to toy with consumers in this way.
This leads to a clear-cut conclusion regarding smartphone sustainability: phones need to be designed to last as long as possible to be as sustainable as possible. Companies like Apple are right to put attention on using recycled materials in the manufacturing process, but as Greenpeace and others point out, device longevity is the most important factor at play in pursuit of sustainable smartphones.
The miracle device we carry around known as the smartphone is no doubt the technology wonder of the modern age. Futurists from the past, if brought to our time, might be sad to see the moon barren, cancer still threatening, and rough draft phase of autonomous automobiles, but they’d be amazed by smartphones. However, as is the case with any sophisticated device manufactured and sold to billions, this tech is in need of a sustainable approach. Consumers have a role to play as much as the companies making the devices. The question is, are they ready to take responsibility?