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Hero or villain? Opposing arguments for the environmental impact of smartphones

08-16 smartphone nature

[Image above] Are smartphones a good thing or bad thing for environmental sustainability? Credit: Pixabay


Our feature story about smartphones from the December 2018 ACerS Bulletin revealed a startling statistic—total smartphone shipments around the world are expected to exceed 13 billion devices for the decade ending in 2020 alone. That is almost two devices for every person currently inhabiting the planet. And those 13 billion devices equate to many more billions of ceramic and glass components that make the devices possible.

While that staggering number of smartphones is partly attributed to growing adoption of the devices by new users globally—estimates indicate that over 70% of the global population will be smartphone users by 2025—it also can be partly attributed to how frequently many existing smartphone users upgrade to brand new devices.

Figures indicate that 43% of Americans replace their devices every year, although those numbers may change with more recent trends of rising device prices, improved battery life, and growing environmental concerns. Still, many users cannot resist the draw to upgrade when companies annually unveil devices with new, cutting-edge features.

Take for instance the upcoming Google Pixel 4, due out later this year. According to rumors and Google itself, the Pixel 4 may come equipped with futuristic touchless gesture controls. If that is the case, it is going to be difficult for many existing smartphone users to resist the urge to upgrade to this new device so they can live out their own version of superhero reality.

Because ceramic and glass materials contribute so heavily to the smartphone industry, the vast size of the smartphone market is a good thing in regard to demand and innovation in the materials that make this tech possible.

And, as we learned in the ACerS Bulletin smartphone feature article, ceramic materials have been an integral enabling technology for miniaturization of electronics components, allowing devices today to perform more functions while occupying a smaller physical form than ever before.

The anticipated Pixel 4 touchless gesture control is thanks to a pretty spiffy and miniaturized radar sensor designed through Google’s Project Soli. Credit: Google ATAP, YouTube

In essence, materials innovations allow researchers to develop all kinds of technology that perform better and much more efficiently. And it is cyclical—as materials innovations enable researchers to build better devices, demand for those better devices continues to spur additional innovations in materials, thus improving technology even further.

Yet while the cycle means more phones and more components made of ceramic and glass materials, it is also increasingly considered that the burgeoning smartphone industry is maybe not such a good thing if we consider its environmental impact.

To build a smartphone, a vast amount of material resources must be mined to manufacture each new device, mining practices that often negatively impact the environment as well as the humans working in those mines.

Compound that heavy demand for resources with both the e-waste that discarded devices create (a tiny fraction of which are recycled) and the CO2 emissions from the gigantic data centers and servers required to power our devices, and it is easy to see how our favorite piece of technology is increasingly considered an enemy in environmental sustainability.

So should you completely ditch your smartphone if you want to go green?

Well, maybe not so fast. There is actually an opposing argument that smartphones are the heroes, rather than villains, of this story.

Because smartphones today are so multifunctional, some suggest they actually eliminate piles of additional electronic devices that otherwise would have existed in this world if we still used separate devices to perform each individual function.

As writer and historian Steve Chicon writes in a 2014 Huffpost article, 13 out of 15 gizmos in a 1991 Radio Shack ad perform functions that overlap with what a modern smartphone can do:

  • Personal stereo
  • Clock radio
  • Ear phones
  • Calculator
  • Computer
  • Camcorder
  • Mobile telephone
  • Mobile CB
  • Speed-dial phone
  • CD player
  • Desktop scanner
  • Phone answerer
  • Tape recorder

Of course, smartphones today have gained additional capabilities even beyond those listed above. “And while the ad didn’t include a compass, camera, barometer, altimeter, accelerometer, or GPS device, these too have vanished into the iPhone and other smartphones,” a recent Wired article notes.

So while manufacturing all the world’s some 13 billion smartphones requires a significant amount of material resources and energy, in the end that amounts to much less than would have been required to manufacture all the individual electronics that smartphones have replaced. It’s an interesting thought.

“Cichon’s find shows us that when thinking about their overall impact on the planet, it’s not helpful to think in isolation about producing 2 billion iPhones,” the Wired article continues. “Instead, we should think about a counterfactual: What would have been produced over the past 12 years in a smartphone-free world? The answer, clearly, is a lot more: a lot more gear, and a lot more media.”

So, hero or villain? Like any good plot, it turns out the story is more complicated than it seems.

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