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Every few weeks, the tech world is buzzing about the latest and greatest devices with “must-have” features. Phone manufacturers and service providers tell us that we’re “due for an upgrade” and social pressure makes us want the newest smartphone on the market. But what impact is this having on our planet? When we toss an old phone or computer to the curb on trash day, it may be doing more harm than we know. In honor of Earth Day, let’s take a look at the effects our tech addiction has on the environment, and some steps we can take to keep our planet healthy.
Many of our favorite devices, like phones, computers and tablets contain components that, when improperly recycled, can have an impact on human health. Heavy metals and toxic substances like lead, cadmium, beryllium, and flame retardants don’t harm us when they’re safely contained within our devices, but when these devices are destined for the landfill, they become a problem. If your old phone or laptop ends up in a landfill or gets incinerated or melted down with other waste, these toxins can leach into the air or into our water supply.
Another issue is that the circuits in our devices are built with valuable precious metals that are difficult to mine. Gold, copper, silver and palladium can be found in abundance in our computers and smartphones, and, as demand for tech continues to grow, so does the demand for these finite resources. When we throw away old devices, we throw away these resources with little regard for the miners who put their lives at risk to dig up these minerals. And we often forget that, though these resources can be recycled, we have to take an active role in making sure they do get recycled and not simply thrown away.
While tech in general impacts the environment, mobile phones are a particular problem because of the frequency at which we upgrade to new devices. In absolute values, emissions caused by smartphones jumped recently to 125 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year (Mt-CO2e/yr) growing at a fast rate of 730% during the last ten years.
To put it into perspective, we can do some calculations; 125 megatons are the same as:
Cutting the numbers by say 50% it would be the same as 1 Billion trees grown for 10 years.
The largest share of this footprint is caused by the production, rather than the usage. On top of that, a significant percentage of users keep their old phones (estimates say there are over 700 million smartphones hibernating in European homes) or throw them to waste once replaced with new, preventing their old phones being recycled. On average, people don’t keep using a mobile phone much longer than a year before they decide it’s time for an upgrade to a newer, faster, flashier device, resulting in less than 15% of phones being recycled. Where are all of these unused old phones ending up?
Electronic waste, also known as e-waste, is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. But many people, especially those in developed countries, realize that just tossing their old phone in the bin isn’t a solution. Luckily, the majority of the components in a mobile phone can be recycled and reused. Even so, there’s a lack of knowledge about how to properly recycle devices, and a lack of accessible resources for many areas. While you may be able to find an e-waste recycling program local to you, these programs can hardly keep up with the amount of waste we create.
So instead of throwing old phones in the garbage, and because of a lack of e-waste recycling resources, many people simply hang onto their old devices. But if that’s true then there are billions of mobile devices just collecting dust in drawers and on shelves. In fact, many people will keep using a phone for only a year or two, upgrade to a newer, faster phone, and then let their old one sit around the house for much longer than it was actually in use.
It’s unlikely that our obsession with tech will slow. As technology becomes more and more ingrained in our lives, we need to come up with innovative solutions to combat e-waste and the problems it causes. But this will certainly take time. As consumers, we need to take small steps in the right direction. It can be tough to balance the desire to get your hands on the latest device while remembering to respect our planet. As one person, you may not feel like your actions make an impact, but, in reality, your actions can encourage others and inspire new policies.
Here are a few things you can do to avoid creating more tech waste:
● Rethink your needs – do you really need something brand new? Think about what you really need this device for. If you’re just making calls, browsing the internet, and playing a few games, will a refurbished phone do the job? You can still upgrade your device, get new features, and get something new to you without increasing the global demand for new products.
● Care for your devices – when you properly care for your smartphone (i.e. keeping it cleaned, protecting it in a case. etc.), you can make it last longer. Don’t upgrade just for the sake of it – wait until you absolutely need it.
● Reuse when possible – when you’re ready to trade out your device, make sure you consider what to do with your old device. By waiting, you are increasing the chances your phone will be left on a shelf hibernating. In some cases, if your device is still in good shape, it can be refurbished, and put to good use. Once you come to a conclusion look for programs to trade-in your old device to potentially get a discount on a new one.
● Properly recycle electronics – if your device is more than a few years old, though, or doesn’t work at all, it may be a better idea to refurbish it. The future of circular economy is bright and there are plenty of reliable options out there, so why not commit along with Swappie to make a better world and close the loop in electronics?
If you’re concerned about creating waste, opt for a refurbished phone when you’re looking to buy. When you buy a used phone from a reputable seller, they often go through rigorous testing before they are sold to the consumer. This way, you know you’re getting a quality device without contributing to the growing problem of e-waste.
Now you know it: we must reduce the loss of resources, avoid creating more electronics waste and, most importantly, change our attitudes towards electronics usage. Above you have a few tips that will lead us to start the journey. Together, we have to build a circular model that will change our tech use forever and foster a sustainable future.
How does it look like? Here’s our vision:
If we all followed this model, we could save any of the resources used in manufacturing new phones, and drastically reduce the impact that the smartphone industry is currently having on our beautiful Earth
We all agree smartphones make our lives more convenient, so we can stay connected, productive, and entertained. However, smartphones are here to stay.
Would you join our journey and help us close the loop?
Swappie is glad to help make it easier to get value out of your old phones. We are here to facilitate the change towards a circular model! Therefore, if after reading this article you’ll find an old iPhone in your drawers, sell it to Swappie, so we can refurbish it. Your used device will become someone else’s new iPhone, and they can get even more use and enjoyment out of it.
In the end, if we act together and spread consciousness about this, we can make the world a healthier place to live.