Is your mobile costing the earth? Summer 2007
likes a bargain phone, but the true price of your ‘free’ upgrade
might come as shock
The mobile phone is fast becoming the world’s favourite gadget, with nearly
a billion sold around in the globe last year. But the very handsets that put
us in touch with the world are also damaging our planet – often in ways
that we don’t see, or in countries thousands of miles away.
The microchips at the heart of every phone are tiny, run off a trickle of electricity
and emit not even the slightest whiff of smoke. What could be more eco-friendly?
But research from the United Nations University in Tokyo suggests a darker scenario.
According to the UNU, manufacturing just a single 32Mb chip requires 32kg of
water, 1.6kg of fossil fuels, 700 grams of gases, and up to 72 grams of hundreds
of other chemicals, including lethal arsine gas and corrosive hydrogen fluoride.
Mining the materials, manufacturing the chips, shipping and then using your phone
all take more energy than you might expect. A typical mobile will be responsible
for over 120kg of emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide over its lifetime – that’s
more than 750 times its own weight.
Not all phones are equally guilty. Greenpeace regularly audits electronics manufacturers
for environmental impact, and the differences are startling. In its latest report,
Nokia and Sony Ericsson win praise for setting timelines to eliminate toxic chemicals
from their handsets, while Apple – which plans to launch its first touch-screen
iPhone later this year – languishes in last place, with a poor record of
taking back and recycling products.
But the leaders shouldn’t be complacent, warns Mark Strutt of Greenpeace: “Because
the business of electronics involves so many hazardous chemicals, we don’t
think there are any truly green manufacturers at the moment. The majority of
companies simply haven’t yet realised the gravity of the situation.”
The scale of the problem becomes clearer when you consider how we behave towards
our phones in the UK. Instead of using our phones until they fail – around
six to eight years – we flit from handset to handset in as little as 18
months, chasing newer features, lighter batteries or simply sexier designs.
This handset churn is also driven by the way phones are subsidised by UK networks.
There’s very little incentive to buy a £20 replacement battery for
last season’s scuffed and unfashionable mobile, when your network is offering
you a brand-new handset for nothing. Of course, you’re effectively paying
for it with increased monthly payments, but why can’t the likes of O2 and
Orange simply offer discounted tariffs or free batteries to customers willing
to hold on to their current handset?
Manufacturers are starting to imagine phones with longer life-spans. Markus Terho,
Director of Environmental Affairs at Nokia, says, “All of our products
allow for software upgrades which, in some cases, can actually increase the energy
efficiency of the product.” How about a completely upgradable phone, with
functionality that can added as technology develops? “It’s possible,” says
Terho, “But it requires the marketplace to really want that functionality.
If people really had the desire for a hardware platform where you can add a camera
or a music player, we would definitely be making them.”
Daily life has an impact, too. For instance, did you know that a permanently
plugged-in phone charger wastes as much energy as is needed to build a mobile
and use it for its entire life – all because we’re too lazy to simply
flick a switch? Some phone makers are now reducing stand-by consumption, or making
mobiles that remind you to disconnect the power once the battery is full, but
it’s really down to us to change our behaviour.
The other big decision we can make is what to do with our phones once we’ve
finished with them. Unfortunately, most of us simply throw old handsets in a
cupboard when an upgrade arrives. It’s estimated that there are up to 100
million mobiles in the UK simply gathering dust. They’re unused but not
unloved, according to Markus Terho of Nokia: “We’ve been doing consumer
research about what would convince people to recycle their phones. The biggest
roadblock to getting them back is the fact that people have very strong emotional
bonds with their mobiles.”
Nokia has offered free ringtones and text messages to consumers recycling phones
in China, and is also having success with a Finnish scheme that donates a few
Euros to a World Wildlife Fund against climate change for every handset returned.
Would it make it easier to part with your old phone if you realised that recycling
a phone can reduce its overall environmental impact by up to 15% - as well as
helping people in developing countries? Olly Tagg is director of Corporate Mobile
Recycling, one of the nation’s biggest phone recyclers. “The majority
of the 900,000 phones we received last year came through our links with charities
like Oxfam and the Red Cross,” he says, “We raised a quarter of a
million pounds for Oxfam alone, and the business is still growing.”
When a phone arrives at a recycler, it’s tested for functionality. “About
70% of the phones we get are working,” says Olly Tagg, “We refurbish
these and sell them predominantly to Africa. In countries such as Zambia, where
there are few land lines, people rely on mobile phones like you wouldn’t
believe. Having an older Nokia handset you can buy for 10 quid is genuinely life-changing.”
However, some companies are wary about shipping ageing products, containing hazardous
materials, to poorer nations. Nokia’s Markus Terho, “We should recycle
phones as close as possible to the market where they were originally sold. We’re
not in favour of transporting millions of near end-of-life products to developing
countries where they cannot cope with material recycling.”
In the UK, up to 80% of the material content of a phone can be recycled and reused.
Complex micro-chips, LCD screens and cameras are crushed and smelted to release
small amounts of valuable metals like gold, palladium, silver and nickel. Plastic
parts can either be shredded and re-made into new forms, or burned to fuel the
But developing countries rarely have the infrastructure for reclaiming and disposing
of these materials safely. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates
that up to 50 million tons of consumer electronics are thrown away each year,
much of it eventually ending up in poorly equipped scrap yards in China, India
or Africa, sometimes even being dismantled by children.
Iza Kruszewska, a Toxics Campaigner at Greenpeace, says: “We’d like
to see companies phasing out hazardous substances in their products altogether.
That would make recycling less dangerous for the workers involved. If a phone
were to get dumped, whether in Europe or Africa, at least it wouldn’t be
a toxic problem.”
Working with Motorola, researchers at the University of Warwick have developed
a prototype phone casing made of a polymer that biodegrades naturally in compost,
nurturing a tiny sunflower seed embedded inside.
Until more eco-friendly materials appear, there’s good news on the recycling
front. From July, the European WEEE directive will become law in Britain, obliging
manufacturers and retailers to take back obsolete and broken products. We’ll
be able to dispose of electrical and electronic waste at local refuse centres,
or simply hand back old phones when we buy new ones, completely free of charge.
Some retailers are complaining that the costs of complying with this legislation
may mean us paying higher prices in store, but whether it’s poisonous plastics,
power-sapping chargers or simply carbon emissions, we can no longer pretend that
our precious phones are the innocent children of the high-tech revolution.
We’ve been enjoying our electronic bonanza at the expense of the planet,
and the time has come to pay prices that begin to reflect the real cost of their
production and disposal. While this may make for more expensive products – or
an end to ‘free’ upgrades - in the short term, sustained eco-pressure
should evolve more efficient devices that weigh less, use less power and have
a longer lifespan.
Ultimately, the choice is ours. If we vote for greener mobiles with our wallets,
use them sensibly, upgrade less often and dispose of them carefully, we should
be able to enjoy new technology for years to come. Or we can continue to treat
mobiles as disposable treats, blinker ourselves to the impact we’re having
around the word - and potentially pay a much higher price in the future…
Dial down your waste
Top tips for reducing the environmental impact of your mobile
• Don’t upgrade before you need to. Handsets are designed to work
for up to 10 years, but are usually replaced within two.
• Choose a handset from a responsible manufacturer – check the latest
ranking at www.greenpeace.org.uk.
• Don’t buy a handset with more features than you need. Every extra
chip and LCD screen takes precious resources to make.
• Don’t leave the phone charger permanently plugged in, and don’t
leave a fully charged battery connected to the charger as it can shorten its
• Replace a battery rather than the whole phone – and dispose of
the old battery responsibly.
• When you’ve finished with a working phone, give it to friends,
family or a recycling scheme.
• Charities from Oxfam to NSPCC raise money recycling phones, or you can
make money yourself at www.envirofone.com.
• Broken phones should always be recycled. New legislation coming soon
will make it easier to return all kinds of electronic items when you upgrade.
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