Most of us can’t imagine life without our smartphones. But what might be even harder to imagine is the amount of resources required to build and own these powerful pieces of personal tech.
You don’t have to give up your smartphone, of course. What you can do is learn about the environmental cost of smartphones and choose strategies that will help you minimize your impact. These are some key things to know if you want to reduce the environmental footprint of everyday tech use.
1. Smartphone batteries require mining rare earth minerals
Your phone’s battery is powered by a sophisticated combo of rare earth minerals like lithium, manganese and cobalt. The main sources of these minerals are often in impoverished Global South countries like Bolivia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The companies that operate the mines often treat their workers badly and use environmentally destructive mining practices.
Advances in battery technology and mineral recycling could one day reduce the need for these minerals. That’s a long way off, though, and demand will probably keep rising in the short term as the boom in electric car batteries increases competition for the same mineral resources.
2. Most smartphones end up as e-waste that creates toxic residue in the ground.
Obsolete or broken smartphones often end up as e-waste in landfills, both in the U.S. and less developed countries. The various minerals and plastics used in manufacturing a smartphone stick around for a long, long time — basically forever, in many cases. Over time, these components can start to spread toxic residue into soil and groundwater.
Much of this waste can be recycled instead, but it requires people to take the time and effort to dispose of their devices. To complicate things even more, some fly-by-night recyclers claim to offer e-waste services but use environmentally unfriendly practices like selling the waste to junkyards in other nations.
3. Regular phone cases are a huge source of plastic waste
If there’s one thing people replace more often than their smartphones, it’s their phone case. Many users will replace their case at least once during a phone’s lifespan, and that’s not even counting the people who buy multiple phone cases that they can change like an outfit. (Look, we’re not saying we’re completely innocent, OK?)
Unfortunately, most phone cases are made from non-biodegradable materials such as polycarbonate plastic that will take millions of years to decompose. And because they’re so cheap to make, thin plastic phone cases get produced by the millions every year. Moreover, the end result is a whole lot of plastic phone cases that end up in landfills, waterways, and other places, where they create a health risk that can affect whole generations.
How You Can Reduce the Impact of Your Smartphone
1. Don’t buy a new phone unless you need one
One of the most impactful ways that an individual can combat e-waste is to hold off on buying a new phone for as long as possible. However long you go between new phones right now, challenge yourself to do one year more. Besides, you might be surprised at how little you notice the difference once you get used to not having the newest model.
That said, it’s not a good idea to continue using a phone after its manufacturer stops issuing security updates, particularly an Android phone. The risk increases as your phone move past the end of its update life cycle. When you do buy a new phone, choose one that you’ll be able to keep for a long time. (Conveniently, this can mean treating yourself to the newest model!)
2. Dispose of an old phone the right way.
If you’re getting rid of an old phone, never throw it in the trash. You don’t want to send it to a landfill where it will leach chemicals into the ground. Furthermore, the battery in your phone is a hazard to the workers who collect and sort your garbage, since it can catch fire or explode if it gets crushed or punctured.
Instead, you’ve got a few options for proper phone disposal. First, try trading it in with your mobile carrier. You might be able to get credit toward a new phone, and your carrier will dispose of it correctly. If that’s not an option, you can either donate it to a local charity organization or drop it off at an electronics recycling point. Finally, try to make sure the recycler you leave it with is an EPA certified electronics recycler.
3. Reduce the footprint of your phone accessories.
Most of us love accessorizing our phones, but we can also all think about ways to minimize the impact of the accessories we use. First, try to keep the amount of single-use plastic in your accessories to an absolute minimum. Phone cases, as we noted, are some of the worst offenders here, so think about options like the many sustainable iPhone 13 cases that are now available.
Bluetooth earbuds, although popular, are some of the most high-impact accessories because of the tiny batteries they contain. If you have AirPods or other Bluetooth earbuds, make an effort to keep them as long as possible, and dispose of them at an electronics recycling center. Buy a nicer, longer-lasting pair instead of the cheap ones, and invest in a good AirPods case cover to protect the charging case.
When people work together, they can shift how society approaches technology and commerce. You can take small steps toward being the change we need in the environment and the economy so that one day we can all breathe a little easier about loving our phones as much as we do!