Having a smartphone in the 21st century is a necessity and keeps us connected with friends, family and work. Smartphones aren’t inherently bad, but our culturally ingrained attitude towards switching up our handsets is problematic.

We’ve probably all experienced the joy of unboxing a brand new phone. That satisfying moment of peeling off the protective screen cover and unveiling our new device is pretty great. But once we take a look at the journey our smartphone undergoes before it’s in our hands, and where it ends up once we’re done with it, we have to ask ourselves is that premature upgrade really worth the cost?

We’re viewing smartphones as a disposable item 

Currently, we appear to have an unhealthy attitude towards upgrading our smartphones. Research from YouGov suggests that 45% of smartphone owners would rather upgrade their phone than get it repaired. They also discovered that younger people are upgrading their phones the most frequently. Their polls reveal that 40% of 18-24 year olds replace their smartphone within 2 years. Other research on the reasons for smartphone replacement found that 47% of people wanted the latest model. Another 40% replaced their device because their existing phone wasn’t functioning: 

Reasons for smartphone replacement

Reports seemingly show that in recent years, we are holding on to our devices for longer before replacing them. Some are attributing this trend to the pandemic and economic crisis. Research suggests that in upcoming years, recovery from COVID-19 may see the smartphone replacement cycle shorten once again as the economy recovers following the pandemic.

So, why are we frequently upgrading our smartphones?

There are a couple of interlinked issues that are leading to high levels of e-waste. Fully-functioning smartphones are upgraded which leaves the old device obsolete in a drawer, and at the same time smartphone companies aren’t designing devices that are durable or simple to repair. So, although some people are choosing to prematurely upgrade their devices while it’s still working perfectly, technical issues that occur within the device’s lifespan and the subsequent difficulty of repair are also contributing to devices being replaced. 

Repair needs to be cheaper and easier 

If parts were able to be easily replaced and repaired rather than the device being designed to become obsolete, it would go a long way in preventing e-waste. The cost of repair is also a deterrent, with 53% of Brits choosing to replace their entire device as the cost of fixing it is too high. If this was cheaper and simpler with the introduction of universal components, it could reduce the amount of people choosing new devices over fixing their current phone. This is vitally important when considering that: 

Buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade

The manufacturing process of our smartphones has devastating environmental impacts 

Before reaching the shelves for purchase, the production journey of our smartphones is a complex process and begins with mining for precious metals. Each device requires up to 34kg of raw ores, and contains around 30 precious elements including aluminium, cobalt, copper, gold, palladium, platinum, silver and tungsten. There are a few major environmental impacts of mining for these elements:

  • Massive amounts of water are required.
  • A huge amount of waste is generated that acts as a source of contamination.
  • Extraction is an energy-intensive practice.

The production process generates 80% of each device’s carbon footprint. The main fuel for mining operations is oil, which contributes to high carbon emissions. The use of fossil fuels in this process is devastating when considering the climate crisis. 

Water sources are under threat

In Chile, the high consumption of water required to mine copper and lithium is leading to water scarcity, which has a detrimental effect on local farmers. Gold and tin mining in the Amazon is one of the leading causes of deforestation. As well as this, mercury and cyanide generated during extraction contaminates local ecosystems and drinking water. 

How are water sources being contaminated? 

A by-product of mining is tailings, the material left over after the valuable minerals are extracted from an ore. This waste can be either solid or liquid and is usually contained in large structures such as earth dams. Major mine operations are contaminating drinking water sources and river systems with tailings from extraction. Sometimes the structures holding the tailings fail, leading to large spills. In the worst cases, these spills have led to loss of life and usually cause environmental disasters with high cleanup costs.

Take a look at this harrowing footage of an artificial lake in Baotou, Mongolia. Mineral refineries are dumping Radioactive, toxic waste:

Mining for elements is a social injustice issue

We also can’t overlook where the device’s manufacturing components are sourced, with elements often being mined from developing nations. Whilst strides have been made in combating exploitative processes, ILO have stated that more than 1 million children are engaged in child labour in mines and quarries. Amnesty reports that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (where more than half the world’s cobalt comes from), 40,000 children still work in mines extracting cobalt. 

Due to public scrutiny, in recent years progress has been made with companies being more transparent about where their precious minerals are sourced; Apple was the first smartphone manufacturer to publish a list of their cobalt smelters. The main consumer countries introducing legislation to enforce transparent and safe extraction of minerals is a necessary step in preventing child labour in mines, but is not enough to eliminate it entirely.

But we can recycle our old devices, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case…

The UN’s 2020 Global E-waste Monitor report found that the world dumped 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste in 2019, up 21% in just five years. According to the report, only 17.4% was recycled. This means approximately 44.3 million tonnes was sent to landfill in a single year, emitting contaminants into the area that in turn pollutes the atmosphere and threatens the health of local populations.

To make matters worse, a lot of e-waste is often exported to developing nations, where the citizens who aren’t contributing to the waste are experiencing the devastating effects of the pollution that contaminates their health and local environment.

What about smartphone recycling companies? 

Many companies offer phone recycling services. With a quick ecosia search and a couple of clicks you can have a bag delivered to your door for you to send off your old device for ‘recycling’. It’s easy to believe that this is the right thing to do, and out of sight out of mind appears to be at play here. The unfortunate reality is that on average less than 20% of e-waste is actually recycled, with most of it ending up in landfill. 

Why aren’t our devices recycled? 

Due to the amount of precious minerals that are within our phones, the process of recycling them is complex and expensive. This doesn’t incentivise companies to specialise in the techniques required to recycle the minerals. So although we think we’re doing the right thing as a consumer, our old devices still end up in landfill. When e-waste is sent to landfill it’s often burned, releasing chemicals that cause harm to both humans and the environment. The toxic materials within our devices such as lead and mercury, seep into soil and water sources which pose a serious health risk to humans and wildlife.

How did we get here, and what can we do now?

Big brands have us believing that upgrading our phone is a necessity, when we need to shift towards seeing it as a luxury. Some brands even incentivise it; Samsung offered money off a brand new smartphone if you traded in the one you received just one year ago. The privilege of upgrading a perfectly operating smartphone for a new one is stark when you consider the cost on both people and the planet.

There needs to be a total shift in the way we view smartphones as a throwaway item. Manufacturers must take responsibility to move towards sustainable practices with durable and easier to repair devices. As consumers, we have a responsibility to be aware of the environmental and social impacts our smartphone has. The best thing we can do is change our habits and use our devices for longer, and put pressure on the tech companies to do better.

Be curious! 

Check out smartphone alternatives like Fairphone, the only smartphone that is Fairtrade gold certified. The parts are designed to be replaced if they become faulty and prices for the handset start at £369.

Take a look at sim only deals instead of trading in your phone at the end of your contract. Ecotricity’s Ecotalk mobile network has teamed up with the RSPB to give land back to nature. 

Consider buying a refurbished phone rather than a new one.

Support charities such as Amnesty International and Unicef in their work to assist ending exploitative labour practices.