We’re putting your most intimate friend is in the spotlight. Yes, the one that you wake up with in the morning, happen to see on the way to the washroom, visit with on your commute home, have dinner with, and check in on before you go to bed. Do you and your smartphone need a relationship reset?
Although the Information and Communication Industry (ICT) is oftentimes praised for its’ reduction of inefficiencies and greenhouse gasses, a 2018 report from McMaster University takes a closer look at our most intimate friend and its’ peers.
In light of the Paris Agreement which prioritizes the reduction of greenhouse gasses, the McMaster University report: Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations makes the case to evaluate the ICT comprehensively, all the way from production and supply chain environmental costs to energy use once the device is in your home. It is also the first to include smartphones in its’ evaluation of greenhouse gas footprint for the industry.
By 2040, the ICT is set to represent 14% the global greenhouse gas emissions: roughly representing one-half of the aviation industry’s emissions. Further, the report highlights that the manufacturing of devices composes a large portion of their respective greenhouse gas emissions. The impact of smartphones has grown by 730% over a 10 year period, largely because in the case of a smartphone, 85-95% of its’ lifecycle annual footprint (or in this case, carbon “smudged fingerprint”) has already happened in the production of the phone itself; before you sign that 2-5 year contract.
The production of a cell phone is problematic due to the extraction process for minerals like coltan and cobalt, essential to creating a cell phone. According to Greenpeace, “more than 340 times as much rock must be mined to extract the minerals required for a typical smartphone”. Further, areas mined are rarely rehabilitated. Gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been severely affected by the reduction of their natural habitats. Miners themselves are put in dangerous situations with inadequate equipment, long working hours and common child labor practices.
The report notes the importance of policy changes with two culprits in the ICT industry: energy produced by Data Centers/Communication Networks, and the short lifespan of a smartphone.
Data centers and communication networks continue to be the primary source of carbon dioxide and run 24/7. Since Data Centers are generally in remote areas and steadily consume power, they would be able to use renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. Some major data centers (Google, Facebook) have already made these changes. However, Communication Networks (the towers and stations, on various wireless or smart grid networks) are more diversified and less centralized, thus harder to change to renewable energy.
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As a conscious consumer, think twice about dumping your smartphone for the new kid on the block.
Most of us are well aware of planned or functional obsolescence when we purchase technology or even appliances. However, this report makes me realize that most recently, planned obsolescence is so far ahead of us that we don’t even wait for devices to break anymore. We’ve entered an era of perceived obsolescence: that it is okay to just replace things because “it’s time”.
Smartphones are the worst among the ICT devices for greenhouse gasses. As a policy recommendation, the report recommends extending the lifespan of a smartphone to 4 years or more which “could face strong resistance from the phone manufacturers for whom the accelerated obsolescence of their cell phones is central to their business model.”
What can you do?
When you do let go of a phone, give it away to someone who will use it, or use a site like Recycle My Cell to ensure that usable parts of it can be salvaged. As of 2017, annual global e-waste production was enough to cover the entire city of San Francisco, 14 feet deep!
Added bonus: you’ll do me the favour of making my iPhone 5 cool again.