The Toxic Legacy of the Smartphone


The Summary

  • Environmental toll. Smartphone production causes huge CO2 emissions, water pollution and toxic mining waste.
  • Economic difference. Our economy grossly underestimates the environmental cost of smartphone materials.
  • Effect on consumption. Smartphones drive global waste and encourage harmful consumer behavior.

Sixteen billion smartphones have been sold since 2007. During the manufacturing process, each of them produced an average of 60 kg of CO2, polluted 14,000 liters of water and resulted in 90 kg of toxic waste in mining. In total, that’s 950 million tons of CO2, 1.4 billion tons of toxic mining waste and 214 billion tons of polluted water.

Smartphone Recycling: A Only 5% Material Reuse and the Resulting Toxic Toll

The recycling rate for smartphones is not good because, basically, they are not worth recycling. Globally, about 15% is currently recycled and of those that are recycled, about 30% of reusable materials are recovered. That means that of all the materials mined for a smartphone, only 5% will be reused. The other 95%, often highly toxic, ends up polluting our water, soil and air.

There are many materials and components in smartphones. Katie Singer has mapped 125 substances. “Take polysilicon,” he explained. “To do this, pure quartz gravel, a pure carbon (such as petroleum coke – an oil byproduct from the Tar Sands), and a dense wood (such as Amazonian eucalyptus) are placed in a smelter to ‘reduce’ the silicon from quartz. I consider quartz gravel, petroleum coke and wood the three ingredients that go into making a smartphone.” Katie has done and continues to do amazing work charting the effects of the digital environment.

Related Article: Global North E-Waste: Modern Technology Is a World of Trash

Smartphone Manufacturing: High Earth Price for $1 Raw Material Cost

Brian Merchant, in his excellent book “The One Device,” took a detailed analysis of the materials in an iPhone 6. He estimated that the total cost of raw materials used to make the phone was $1. Imagine that? One dollar. No wonder the world was destroyed. No wonder people are poisoning the environment. We have very little respect for our environment and its materials. In a $700 phone, the material cost is $1. At the end of that phone’s life, what are the materials worth? 20 cents? No wonder there is no money in recycling.

We have developed an economic model that accurately calculates the true and total cost to the Earth and our environment of the things we produce and consume. Not even remotely close. The environment pays the price of the entire toxic manufacturing process of a smartphone. The 950 million tons of CO2, the 1.4 billion tons of toxic mining waste, the 214 billion tons of polluted water, we are asking the environment to pay for.

Related Article: E-Waste: How Throwaway Economies Feed a Toxic Cycle

The Smartphone’s Role in Global Waste Revealed

And this is only the tip of the toxic melting iceberg when it comes to smartphone impact. Because 95% of the environmental damage done by the smartphone is as a consumption machine that makes it very easy for us to consume everything in front of us for a whim, for our convenience, for our senseless desires. We bought five pairs of cheap jeans with our phones, knowing we’d only keep one. Then we sent four back because, you know, “free” shipping.

The smartphone has become the main architect of the World Wide Waste. Social media is advertising media. And all this waste, all this easy comfort, has it made us happy, has it resulted in a better society? In the US in 2021 nearly 60% of teenage girls reported feeling “constantly sad.”

There are alternatives. We don’t have to live this way. We don’t have to be addicted to the algorithm. We can live better and healthier and happier lives with less technology, with less materials and at the same time save our environment. The change demanded of us is cultural, habitual. And the foundation of that change must be a philosophy of zero waste.

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