Jáchym Judl: Tackling sustainability challenges of smartphone industry requires wide cooperation

5.9.2018 Jáchym Judl
Jáchym Judl

Smartphones are packed with so much technology that they can literally be the only communication, entertainment and work tool one might need to own. Being incredibly useful, as well as addictive, they have become indispensable to many. In fact, globally there are close to 2.5 billion smartphone users today and in 2017 alone over 1.5 billion smartphones were sold globally. The gigantic size of the industry creates previously unforeseen possibilities, as well as raises great sustainability challenges.

Smartphones act an important role in societal transition. They have the potential to enhance environmental sustainability of everyday lives and help reducing consumption of natural resources and energy, subsequently reducing CO2 emissions, though services that they enable (e.g. mobility solutions). Nevertheless, the net environmental impacts or benefits resulting from smartphone use largely depend on the use pattern.

On the other hand, smartphones are complex devices that contain numerous precious metals, require energy in production, but don’t typically have a particularly long lifespan. That is to some extent caused by the rapid design and development in the smartphone industry. Every subsequent generation is faster, more technologically advanced and evermore desirable. Phones are quickly becoming outdated due to the lack of software updates and that in turn hinders their reuse. Smartphones also tend to break more easily compared to basic feature phones. These are just some of the factors that cause a rather fast average replacement rate of 21 months. Often, however, it is the consumers who decide to replace their phone for a new one. It’s a personal choice.

What happens to a smartphone once not in use? Due to a complex and typically non-modular design, repair or remanufacturing is challenging. End-of-life phones are typically kept at home for long and that delays recycling. But even if an obsolete smartphone reaches proper recycling, a full scale recovery of speciality metals still remains a dream of the future. Low recovery rates in turn put more pressure on the extraction of virgin raw materials, causing environmental degradation and social issues.

But what actually makes smartphones “smart”? Besides the computing power, it is the energy consuming cellular networks, internet and applications. These can, in fact, be the key elements of the whole system. Only by taking them into account, the true sustainability of smartphones’ life cycle can be assessed. This is a real challenge, but life cycle assessment (LCA) helps us to understand the big picture.

It is up to everyone how we decide to use the hi-tech in our pockets, how we take care of it and how much and how long we use it. The role of the industry is to raise the bar of sustainability along the whole value chain of smartphones. The role of public sector is to stimulate that, e.g. through public procurement. Finland is known as a pioneer in mobile communications, digital solutions, as well progressive environmental protection and sustainability thinking. We are in a unique position to act. Will we?

The report Creating sustainable smartphones: Scaling up best practice to achieve SDG 12 provides a set of best practices – for governments, industry and consumers - on how to achieve a greater sustainability of smartphones. It is the most recent outcome of Transform Together, an initiative that I am part of. The best practices were presented and discussed in June in Brussels and in July at the UN High Level Political Forum in New York.

Jáchym Judl is a researcher at the Finnish Environment institute SYKE.
Tel +358 295 251 227, firstname.lastname@ymparisto.fi

Opinions of blog contributors do not necessarily reflect the official views and opinions of the Finnish Environment Institute.

Kommentit (1 kommenttia)
Kimmo Silvo
klo 13.21
A fine, thoughts evoking blog about a crucially important issue of our new smartphone era!